Musical Creationism at Carnegie Hall

October 18, 2009



Last night John Eliot Gardiner brought his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and Monteverdi Choir to Carnegie Hall to perform Haydn’s most popular choral work, The Creation (or, as this performance, sung by English-speakers for English speakers, sang it, Die Schöpfung). It was a wonderfully detailed and altogether thrilling performance, but I want to share here a couple of aspects of the evening that were not essentially musical but have much effect on the experience of music.

All too often in classical music, the performers on stage seem to forget that they are performers in any but a narrowly sonic sense. They often seem to forget that the audience is made up of people who have more than one sense and that all these ways of perceiving work together to make up our experience.

It is true that many a valuable artist is simply not gifted with anything but musical tools — musical, that is, in its narrowest possible definition; and, when the single gift is of sufficient magnificence, we’re right to be grateful for what we get. But stable, world-famous touring organizations really have no excuse not to consider how their behavior can enhance or inhibit the musical experience. (I have railed here before on the poker-face with which some musicians would seem to communicate, visually, the absence of a human soul behind their playing or singing.) This is why it brought special pleasure last evening to note the care with which, so to speak, the table was set and the meal served.

What amounted to a simple, graceful “choreography” for the singers was very striking to me. Instead of the conventional stand-up-to-sing/sit-down-to-wait-out-others’-singing that we see at oratorios, in which people bob up and down in a routine and utilitarian manner, this chorus stood in attentive union throughout the orchestral overture, with their scores out of sight in their right hands. Towards the end of that dramatic overture, the bass who was to sing the introductory recitative readied himself to sing, well before his time. When he came to the mysterious incantation (in German), “And darkness was upon the face of the deep,” there arose a mist of choral sound softly singing “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” And all that moved was that Spirit, since the chorus stood stock-still, their scores still unopened, as they led up to the most famous “special effect” of Haydn’s masterpiece, the sudden C-Major fortississimo on the word “LIGHT.”

It would be difficult to overemphasize how important someone’s simple decisions were for the the success of these marvelous moments and to that culminating coup de théâtre of the First Day of Creation that Haydn had prepared for us.

And perhaps best of all: it was entirely unobtrusive. Had I not been so experienced at both arranging and observing such details, I’m convinced that my reaction would have been an apparently “only musical” one. But surely we all know by now that it is impossible to draw tidy boundaries between the music and its accompanying actions and conditions.

The second pleasant surprise was a personal one. Because of professional reasons and the powers and motives that normally bring me to such concerts, I tend to be seated at the orchestra level (not, I feel bound to disclose, out of any grandiosity or opulence on my part). So last night was the first time in years that I have been in the balcony of Carnegie Hall. I was immediately struck by something (besides the advantages a mountain goat would have in dealing with the incline of those steep rows of seats). Turning to the old friend — an inveterate denizen of world-wide concert-life — who had procured tickets for us, I whispered: “What is it about The Creation that brings out such a young audience?” As I pronounced the words, I began to suspect the truth.

“That’s the way it always is up here, Roger.”


While the statistics on the ages of concert attendees presumably don’t lie, this experience of being surrounded by an amazing number of really young people in singles, couples, and small groups of friends, led me to wonder how much of the gloom in music journalism about an aging classical-concert population is influenced by the writers’ sitting night after night down in the expensive seats surrounded by the folks Alan Rich used to call “Daddy and Mammy Warbucks,” when a much younger crowd is upstairs.

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