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MIT Concert Choir performs The Creation with spirit

Thomas R. Karlo -- The Tech
Members of the MIT Concert Choir sing during the finale of last Friday's performance of Joseph Haydn's The Creation.

MIT Concert Choir

John Oliver, conductor.

Dominique Labelle, James Kleyla, and Maynard Goldman, soloists.

Kresge Auditorium.

Friday, Nov. 18, 8 p.m.

By Thomas Chen
Staff Reporter

For those patient enough to hold the tempting Friday night premiere of Star Trek Generations in abeyance, they were rewarded by a thoughtful performance of Franz Joseph Haydn's Die Schpfung (The Creation), performed by the MIT Concert Choir, under the direction of John Oliver. The choir was accompanied by a fine orchestra of local musicians and headed by a trio of vocal soloists, soprano Dominique Labelle, tenor Richard Clement, and baritone James Kleyla. Most recently, Ms. Labelle has appeared previously with the MIT Concert Choir in Verdi's Requiem; Mr. Clement and Mr. Kleyla have sung with the Concert Choir in last year's performance of the Bach B-minor Mass.

The Creation is an oratorio, which is a vocal work on a religious theme that is not acted out. Probably the most famous oratorio is Handel's Messiah, from which the often over-played "Hallelujah" chorus is taken. In its day The Creation was an extremely popular piece of music and is still a favorite among music-lovers; it is surely one of Haydn's most inspired works.

Popular in many European countries, this oratorio's text is loosely based on Milton's Paradise Lost and survives with the composer-approved English text. This three-part story of Genesis is told by three archangels, Gabriel (soprano), Uriel (tenor), and Raphael (baritone). The characters Adam and Eve are also featured toward the end, represented by the baritone and soprano, respectively.

One of the most curious historical aspects of The Creation was the original orchestra's size as chosen by Haydn. As the authentic performance movement reminds us, typical orchestras in the late 18th Century were usually no bigger than modern-day chamber orchestras. However, as recorded in an account by Johan Berwald (relative of Franz Berwald), the orchestra and chorus that Haydn led was absolutely huge, including an almost Mahler-esque tripling of the wind parts.

As always, the MIT Concert Choir is a pleasure to listen to and conducts itself with the utmost professionalism. After being hot-pressed last year with Verdi's ultra dynamics and lengthy unaccompanied choral passages, The Creation must have been a welcome relief.

At times, however, the chorus was not so impressive. After the very bold, tension-building introduction one of the first climactic moments is the proud proclamation of "Let there be light" by the singers. The chorus's wimpy delivery of this particular instance was disappointing, as its minor-to-major, soft-to-loud transition is meant to be a very dramatic moment.

Except for a slightly laborious "The heavens are telling," the tempos and phrasing were generally pleasing. Indeed, it is very satisfying to hear an amateur chorus blaze through some heavy coloratura passage work and still retain the contrapuntal argument of Haydn's music. Most impressive of the evening was a deftly executed "Achieved is the glorious work" and an absolutely thrilling "The Lord is great, and great His might."

Aside from an inaudible (or perhaps just shy) alto soloist at the very end, the primary vocal soloists were quite successful in their respective roles. They were all willing to sing with freedom yet maintain the spirit of the written score at the same time.

Both Clement and Kleyla sang with the highest standards and interpretive integrity. From the outset, Clement demonstrated his tonal variety, gliding effortlessly through recitatives like "In splendor bright" that can sometimes seem stodgy if taken too literally. Kleyla's Raphael was authoritative and evinced great vocal daring, especially in "And with devoted heart His bounties celebrate," which was uttered with the barest of pianissimos.

Labelle delivered her lines with great facility, but her tonal texture was not suitably matched with those of the tenor and baritone. Though beautiful in its own right, Labelle's sharp tone sounded stylistically too different from those of her colleagues, most evidently in the trios. Unquestionably accurate, her voice blended best when Eve appeared to duet with Adam, probably an interpretive gesture to portray the innocence of the first woman. Her interpretation overall was very interesting. Her well-controlled coloratura and imaginative ornamentation on held notes were pleasantly surprising. Most delightful of all was the cute little trill on the word "happiness" in "Grows my pride and happiness."

The instrumental support was adequate for the task at hand, and John Oliver's approach was clear-cut and well-defined. Because of the nature theme of The Creation, Haydn, known for his good-humored music, amused his audience with plenty of musical references to words in the text. For example, the audience chuckled at the low horn trills which represented a roaring lion. And of course, all heard what a contrabassoon sounds like during Raphael's "By heavy beasts the ground is trod."

Aside from an accidental honk from the clarinet and a late oboe to open Adam and Eve's first duet, the orchestral contribution was usually very satisfactory. The biggest complaint should be lodged against the exceedingly staid harpsichordist, who produced little more than boring broken chords and simple arpeggios. Although the score specifies a harpsichord for the continuo, Berwald's written account of the earliest performances records Haydn using a fortepiano. Either way, if it were not for the colorful singing of the soloists, the recitatives with continuo could have been truly soporific.

All in all, the MIT Concert Choir has retained a high level of singing and will probably do so for the semesters to come. It seems that whatever the MIT Concert Choir does under its excellent leadership is destined to be a definite success.