Christine Brandes, soprano
Robert Breault, tenor
Charles Austin, bass
Madison Symphony Orchestra
John DeMain, conductor
Rounding out his sixth season as music director, John DeMain very imaginatively and fervently conducted the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, together with soprano Christine Brandes, tenor Robert Breault and bass Charles Austin, in two performances of Haydn's epic oratorio, The Creation. It was also the debut of multimedia presentation at an MSO concert, with projected slides illustrating the story of Genesis on a large screen above and in front of the musicians. The musical aspects, especially in the Sunday performance, worked splendidly indeed, with detailed, careful renditions of Haydn's remarkable orchestrations and choral settings of the English text. All three soloists sang with great skill and finesse and with extraordinary feeling and passion. The chorus did very well in both hushed and large-scale passages, and the orchestra players negotiated extremely demanding parts with considerable panache.
The projections posed two significant problems, one mechanical and acoustic, the other artistic. The 16x24-foot screen was hung just in front of the proscenium. It was high enough that anyone seated under the balcony would be unable to see it; the MSO staff managed to relocate those people to the balcony. The remainder of the main floor viewers would have to crane their necks more than a little upward. Those in the balcony, including me, could see the screen comfortably but would find their view of the musicians, the chorus especially, significantly blocked. A substantial part of the sound was blocked as well. The physical conditions were thus far from ideal, but imposed largely by nature of the Oscar Mayer Theatre.
Reactions to the projections, mine included, tended to be mixed. On Saturday I found them distracting, so on Sunday I made a point of not watching them so that I could pay closer attention to the music.
On its own merits, the slide show, a production of Marc Mostovoy, music director of the Concerto Soloists of Philadelphia, mainly involved artworks by many artists spanning many centuries. Many images were details of well-known masterpieces, but many were drawn from second-tier genre and landscape paintings of no great distinction other than depicting scenes and characters from the text of the Creation. I found the most arresting images to be those from the Hubble Space Telescope and from Space Shuttle missions, views of Earth and distant galaxies evoking for me the awesome mysteries of our existence more forcefully than gestures of a deity surrounded by angels.
On balance, I think the music worked outstandingly well and the projections worked imperfectly at best. After the fact one can do a lot of second-guessing, but I think the concept itself is quite solid. Some years ahead we might have another Creation in an ideal venue and with much more adventuresome, sophisticated visual elements. In this case, the Sunday performance got very warm applause and a standing ovation, and that's certainly a positive note to end a season on.
Isthmus, April, 2000
Copyright 2000 Jess Anderson