For the final performance of its 2016 subscription series, the Sydney University Graduate Choir and orchestra, conducted by Music Director, Christopher Bowen, gave a Great Hall performance of Joseph Haydn’s Die Schöpfung (The Creation).
Three outstanding soloists were engaged: Penelope Mills (soprano), Andrew Goodwin (tenor) and Adrian Tamburini (bass). They sang brilliantly as individuals but also made an exceptional team in the numerous concerted items Haydn had given them.
The orchestral playing demanded by the Austrian master is frequently complex and virtuosic. Fortunately, our excellent orchestral players were well up to the task. In the absence of our new Concertmaster, Kirsten Williams, who was on Porgy and Bess duty with the SSO, Lizzie Jones deputised with splendid results. The brilliant rendition of the Representation of Chaos, which opens the work, indicated that this was to be a special performance of Die Schöpfung. The violins and violas played with great dash and accuracy throughout. John Benz (cello) and Paul Laszlo (double bass) made some fine sounds at the lower end of the strings. The woodwinds have a prominent role in Haydn’s score and Principals Jacinta Mikus (flute), Duncan Thorpe (oboe), Deborah de Graaff (clarinet) and Gillian Smith (bassoon) were terrific. There was fine playing in the brass with splendid sounds coming in particular from the trombones (Michael Wyborn, Ros Jorgensen, and Mitchell Nissen) and the trumpets (Melanie McLoughlin and David Pye). Steve Machamer’s timpani were given a good workout, whilst continuo was provided by Diana Weston on harpsichord.
On a hot, sticky day, with conditions in the Great Hall less than ideal, the performance was received enthusiastically by the audience, which included our strong supporter, great soprano Joan Carden AO OBE. Our Patron and recent fellow-chorister Professor The Hon. Dame Marie Bashir AD CVO was unable to be with us in person on this occasion but was represented by the impressive portrait painted by Jiawei Shen and exhibited among those of earlier university leaders on the wall of the Great Hall. Joan Carden mentioned, as she had in August 2007, when we last sang Haydn’s great work, that she had sung the soprano solo on a number of occasions but never in German. She felt that the work benefitted from being performed in German.
Final judgment must await Greg Ghavalas’s recording but, from inside the Choir, this seemed to be one of our best performances. The professional musicians and the Choir appeared to respond very well to Haydn’s combination of awe-inspiring grandeur and warm humanity. David Moser, our President, spoke for many, when, in his post-performance message, he commented that the performance had increased his respect for Haydn’s music and floated the idea of performing Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons), the composer’s other late, great oratorio, which we had performed and thoroughly enjoyed in August 2009, again in the next couple of years. To which, as van Swieten and Haydn might have said: “Und Gott sah dass es gut war.Und es ward so.”
The Choir’s rehearsal period for the concert was shared with Handel’s Messiah, which was performed three weeks earlier. This led to concern among some of us that we might be a little underdone, particularly in some of the complex passages, where Haydn has the chorus accompanying the soloists. But Christopher Bowen’s disciplined, focussed rehearsal work in the final couple of weeks and a valuable, if rather gruelling session with the orchestra the day before the concert served to clear out the cobwebs (the fact that a good number of us had also sung Die Schöpfung in 2007 was another plus factor).
The Choir’s performance was the subject of favourable comment immediately following the performance. A member of the audience, whom I had invited, commented: “I do envy your being able to be part of the creation of such glorious sound. I’m not sure whether to say the soloists were great and didn’t let the Choir down, or vice versa’.(Given the terrific quality of the soloists, this is a huge, hyperbolic compliment to the Choir!). ‘And the orchestra was so good too.’
This was an uplifting event and a splendid ending to an excellent year, in which Christopher Bowen had introduced the Choir to unfamiliar composers in von Suppė and Heinichen, as well as giving us the opportunity to enjoy the familiar with Handel and Haydn. Characteristically, he did not allow us to rest on our laurels, by emulating the quite decent “Schöpfung” performance of August 2007 but aimed for, and apparently succeeded in eliciting, a higher quality outcome. Christopher “ist gross in seiner Macht und ewig bleibt sein Ruhm.” But don’t tell him!