Haydn's oratorio "The Creation," played Thursday night at the Walt Disney Concert Hall by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, begins with a six-minute orchestral depiction of chaos, all wandering harmonies and wan string sounds. Then, in a short recitative for baritone, the angel Raphael intones the opening of Genesis: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." The chorus soon gets God's line: "Let there be light." And then comes one of the most startling climaxes in music, a C-major explosion that takes you by thrilling surprise no matter how many times you have heard it.
The oratorio celebrates the celestial spurt of creation without cease. For six days, God, builder of builders, makes the oceans, the firmament and all the creatures, dutifully pausing to note that each is good. In the final section of the score, Adam and Eve enter into what appears to be eternal bliss. No apples for Haydn.
"The Creation" is nothing but good news, and it was Haydn's genius not to need drama to zealously glorify wonder. Even the creation of the worm -- particularly the worm -- wins lovable music.
It may be a bit grandiose to think of this as somehow representative of the building of Disney Hall -- to imagine, after years of chaos when the project was uncertain, a Godlike Frank Gehry finally appraising each silvery panel, each idiosyncratic interior angle, and intoning, "It is good." But Haydn's extravagantly upbeat and inventive music, sounding so fresh and colorful in the warm and lively Disney acoustic, made it difficult not to look around every time the commanding yet amiable baritone Sanford Sylvan sang his "It is good" and agree. Even if you don't happen to be crazy about the floral patterns on the seats.
After the triumphant success in Disney of such orchestral blowouts as Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" and Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony, Esa-Pekka Salonen could well have followed suit with a big-boned "Creation." Leonard Bernstein, after all, proved it's hard to overdo this 1797 oratorio. Haydn stretched Age of Enlightenment conventions, and modern ears naturally want to follow through on all the implications of the marvelous orchestrations and the flamboyant sentiments.
Salonen, instead, made compromises with history. He reduced the orchestra to not small but smallish size, and he reversed the seating of the violas and cellos to give the inner string voices more prominence. One highlight of concerts in Disney has been the hall's tremendous bass response, and a small amount of that was lost with the cellos moved behind the violas, although they were still clearly audible. The benefit was a flavorful lightness of sound.
Salonen also displayed a lightness of touch in his often understated interpretation. New to conducting the score (he tried it out in Finland over the summer), he seemed perfectly content to let the music speak for itself. Perhaps this was a gesture of trust in the Disney acoustic, as if to say, "Haydn, in all his amazing detail, can now be heard, so let's get out of the way."
Personally, I like a little more getting in the way, but this was a very fine performance and one I expect will grow in sureness through the weekend. (Mahler's "Resurrection" reached a magnificent pinnacle by the final performance Sunday.)
The three main solo singers are part of the attraction. Sylvan has such a complete vocal presence that he transcends acoustics. He sounded marvelous in Disney, but then he also sounded marvelous in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
With the engaging tenor Paul Groves as the angel Uriel, it was easier to gauge the difference between the venues. Groves was an exciting Faust in Los Angeles Opera's "The Damnation of Faust" in September, but his not having to push Thursday meant that when he sang of radiant orbs, he too could sound radiant. Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling (Gabriel) proved sweet and strong.
Less successful were Nmon Ford and Jessica Rivera, the Adam and Eve at the end. But completely successful were members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, arrayed on risers on the stage. That doesn't look as tidy as using the hall's built-in chorus benches, but the singers projected with easy clarity.
What also doesn't look good in Disney is the addition of a screen for projecting an English translation of the German text. This hall makes such a strong visual statement that you don't want it messed with.
The Philharmonic did a little messing with the politically incorrect text as well. No longer does Eve's pride and happiness grow from obedience to Adam but from "working with" him. But then liberation is a big deal at the Philharmonic right now, with the orchestra no longer feeling it must obey the acoustical restrictions of its old home and with Haydn, for one, benefiting greatly.
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave.
When: Tonight at 8, Sunday at 2 p.m.
Contact: (323) 850-2000