Mercury CenterThis image allows you to access site resources
Breaking News
Front Page (Image)
Local & State
Business & Stocks
Arts & Ent.
Weekly Sections
Seven Day Archives
Nuevo Mundo
Viet Mercury
Find a Job
Find a Car
Find a Home
Home Improvement
Home Valuation
Online Radio
Advertising Info
Newspaper Services
Mercury News Jobs
Site ?'s & Problems
Contact the Merc
Letters to the Editor


Published Friday, April 20, 2001, in the San Jose Mercury News

Symphony Chorus excels in Haydn's `Creation'

Mercury News

Davies Symphony Hall is uncommonly sympathetic to voices.

I always look forward to hearing the Symphony Chorus here under Michael Tilson Thomas or choral leader Vance George. But the chance to hear these performers led by Helmuth Rilling is a special treat. The distinguished artist -- emeritus director of the Bach Oregon Festival and still steering the International Bach Academy in Stuttgart, Germany -- is conducting Haydn's ``Creation,'' which isn't often heard in the concert hall.

If you like sensitive singing, get to Davies Hall for tonight's or Saturday's performance. Unfortunately, the house looked sparse Wednesday night, during the first of the four programs.

Yes, I know, choral music is an acquired taste -- an encounter that often brings more pleasure to its singing commune than to those in attendance. But the singing excels in this ``Creation,'' all the way 'round.

In parts 1 and 2, soprano Donna Brown, tenor Marcus Ullmann and baritone Andreas Schmidt sing their respective roles of angels Raphael, Gabriel and Uriel superbly. In its third and final section, Brown and Schmidt sing Adam and Eve.

Mozart had been dead half a dozen years when Haydn wrote his ``Creation'' (1796-98) at the request of English impresarios. It's nowhere as thrilling or ostentatious as the works George F. Handel was composing but every bit as well-crafted. Hadyn's tone-painting is more lyrical than dramatic, the effects more subtle.

I mention Mozart to hint at what this Haydn sounds like: Think of the wunderkind's ``Marriage of Figaro'' and especially ``The Magic Flute.'' Both composers borrowed easily from the Viennese currency (keys and chords and tunes) hovering in the air.

Wednesday's solo singing was so shapely and refined that I could not help thinking of Pamina in ``Flute'' when Brown sang arias celebrating the flora God is said to have created on that biblical third day. The tenor Ullmann and soprano were making their San Francisco Symphony debuts, although each had sung with Rilling before, and so had baritone Schmidt. Seldom will you find a trio more refined; Ullmann's tenor is an instrument of beauty and brilliance. Schmidt phrases with insight and colors his tones and manner with a welcome warmth.

All three displayed the legato (smooth) succession of tones that often defines fine singing, avoiding the excess vibrato that suggests artifice and a ``look-at-me'' vulgarity.

Brown was filling in for the originally scheduled Juliane Banse, who could not travel because of pregnancy.

The libretto for ``The Creation'' was assembled by Baron Gottfried van Swieten from biblical sources, using good German that makes for clumsy English. This performance is sung in the preferred Deutsch with supertitles projected in English. (Texts are also in the program book.) And in case anyone is wondering, that rude trombone sound is meant to impersonate a ``heavy beast.''

Rilling's conducting and interpretive skills are more gracious than theatrical, and his phrasings Wednesday stressed clarity of timbre and allowed the bassoon and clarinet to shine through. He did not coax absolute precision from the strings nor sufficient vigor from the cellos and basses, but his cues to the chorus well served its spirited, eloquent reading.

At the fortepiano for the recitatives sat an alert Robin Sutherland, whose long blond ponytail gave a marvelous suggestion of an 18th-century gentleman.

This lovely music repays close attention. Haydn, a Roman Catholic, had a simple faith, which this biblical depiction reflects, perhaps naively by today's standards but with terrific optimism. It's a far cry from last week at the symphony, when James MacMillan's (also Catholic) ``Veni Veni, Emanuel,'' a 1990s masterwork with dark emotions and volumes set to 20th-century levels, was performed.

The mood here will switch from sacred to secular next week, with a subscription concert worth checking out: Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2, Bartók's ``Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste'' and Ligeti's ``Atmospheres.'' Tilson Thomas will be back to lead the orchestra, with Jean-Yves Thibaudet at the keyboard.

San Francisco Symphony

Helmuth Rilling, guest conductor; Donna Brown, soprano; Marcus Ullmann, tenor; Andreas Schmidt, baritone; with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 8 tonight-Saturday
Tickets: $15-$80
Call: (415) 864-6000
Return to top This image allows you to access site resources

© 2000 The Mercury News. The information you receive online from The Mercury News is protected by the copyright laws of the United States. The copyright laws prohibit any copying, redistributing, retransmitting, or repurposing of any copyright-protected material. Mercury News privacy policy