A 'Creation' for a troubled planet: The beginning (and end?) of the world in music and video

Are we allowed anymore to accept the world in which we live as an excellent place? Can we not marvel at nourishing oceans and dry lands without fear for our future, or find wonder in birds and snakes and fish without wondering about their extinction? May we believe in the musical case for dark chaos  resolving into blinding light of reason that Haydn so tantalizingly makes to open his great oratorio, “The Creation”?

Presumably not. Satisfaction is scarce in the dying days of 2016.

On Thursday night, the Los Angeles Philharmonic began its holiday programming at Walt Disney Concert Hall with Haydn’s now all-but-impossibly cheery “Creation,” giving voice to the seven days of the world’s manufacture, along with walk-on roles for Adam and Eve. Gustavo Dudamel conducted a loving performance, grand in scope, bold in design and illuminating in detail. The unshakably reliable Los Angeles Master Chorale was on hand, along with three fine vocal soloists. The performance used the Engish version of the biblical text. 

Venezuelan film and theater director Alberto Arvelo — who in his Simón Bolívar biopic, “The Liberator,” and documentaries on his country’s El Sistema music education program is no stranger to stirring optimism — created a video installation for the oratorio, mainly consisting of images projected on the walls of Disney Hall. James F. Ingalls lighted it with a magician’s touch.

INTERVIEW: Alberto Arvelo talks about his video for "The Creation" at Disney Hall »

Yet for all that, this proved an inescapably gloomy “Creation” reminding us, as Haydn does not, that creation invariably leads to destruction.

It wasn’t that way even a baker’s-dozen years ago, when Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the oratorio as part of a creation festival in celebration of the opening of Disney. The hall was bright and new. Its acoustic made Haydn sound new. Admiration needed no qualification.

For Dudamel’s “Creation,” the hall was kept dark, with the exception of special lighting effects (when God says, “Let there be light,” there was magnificent light). LED lamps now allow the musicians and singers to illuminate their scores without light bleeding beyond. The players and singers were all in black. The vocal soloists — soprano Rachele Gilmore, tenor Joshua Guerrero and baritone Johannes Kammler — were in all white, and stood in the middle of the stage, behind the orchestra and in front of the chorus. When the spots hit them, they blazed as though radioactive.

The projections covered the front (including the organ pipes) and sides of the stage, as well as the seats behind the stage (which were kept empty). They were mostly murky. The constellations could be made out. Creatures of one sort or another floated around. They were often vague in form. What I first thought were flying saucers floating through space turned out, with closer examination, to be fish swimming in the sea.

I discovered at intermission that I wasn’t the only one  who, when certain effects occasionally caused mild seasickness or disorientation,  needed to close  his eyes. With so many lighting effects on the periphery of the viewer’s visual field, this seemed like a vision test in the optometrist’s office.

The gloom and blur could be unsettling in other ways. During Haydn’s charming depiction of chaos, a teaming chaos that might well serve as soundtrack for contemporary quantum physics (of which charm is a property of elementary particles), we were reminded of nuclear uncertainty. Clouds were smile-inducing cumulous and threateningly mushroom shaped. Birds became bombers.

The darkness was claustrophobic but  also stunning, as in Alvaro’s use of Disney as a cave-like environment with dimply projected images of cave paintings to represent the seventh day’s creation of man. Ingalls’ lighting made the walls seem like rock or rubber. For the final chorus of divine praise, Ingalls lighted the Disney organ with a radiance that felt downright supernatural as Dudamel reached for the last magnificent ounce of spiritual uplift. That may have been a thrill not otherwise possible without all the darkness that proceeded it.

Still, it was very difficult to escape the gloom. The soloists felt distant, less immediate, hence less dramatic and delightful, than they needed to be. The harpsichord (played by Joanne Pearce Martin) that accompanied the recitatives, however, was front and center and for once properly audible.

Dudamel, who conducted without a baton (and without last week’s experimental beard) was playful when Haydn is playful, finding pleasure in the marvelous orchestral effects depicting stormy seas, serenading nightingales or heavy beasts treading the seas. He often seemed more Mozartean than Hadyn-esque, emphasizing sweet lyricism over quirkiness. Even so, the spiritual dimension was foremost, making this a “Creation” of warning, an impressive reminder of what we have to lose.  

The video installation will be turned off Sunday afternoon for the last of the oratorio’s four performances. Let there be more than one kind of light. And let there be $20 bench seats behind that orchestra once again.  


Dudamel conducts “The Creation”

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Tickets: $20-$190 (subject to change)

Information: (323) 850-2000, www.laphil.com

Conductor Dudamel and pianist Trifonov try to find a spark

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