Preview: Pro Arte Singers Perform Haydn’s “The Creation” This Weekend

Notable concert, a visit and a tribute to a pioneer arts reporter

By Peter JacobiH-T Columnist
October 28, 2012

A concert to come.

A visit to remember.

A tribute to be made.

Concert of note

William Jon Gray, head of the Jacobs School’s choral department, will conduct three performances of Haydn’s lofty oratorio, “The Creation,” this coming weekend, Friday and Saturday evenings on campus in Auer Hall and Sunday afternoon in Indianapolis, at the Second Presbyterian Church. His musical forces are the IU Pro Arte Singers and Chamber Orchestra.

Consider it a major choral event for the fall season, the opportunity to hear Haydn’s masterful and lofty musical description of the earth’s creation, as depicted in Genesis and Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”

The idea of writing the oratorio came to him while on a trip to London, where he attended a Handel Commemorative Festival. The impresario Johann Peter Salomon, who had been instrumental in bringing the composer and his music to England, broached the idea: Might the honorable Herr Haydn be interested in writing his own oratorio? The answer was yes. A text eventually came his way, much fussed with and even translated from English back into German so that the German-speaking Haydn could more easily work with it. Then, work with it he did.

That work went slowly. Haydn explained the pace: “I spend much time over it because I intend it to last a long time.” Later, with last notes done, he said: “When I was half-way through . I could see it was going to come out well. I have never felt so devout as when I was working on ‘The Creation.’ Every day, I fell on my knees and prayed to God to give me strength to finish the work successfully.”

The oratorio begins, dramatically, with “The Representation of Chaos,” an amazing item that harmonically and rhythmically might have been written by an adventurous composer of today, not back in 1798. It ends blissfully with Adam and Eve ensconced in their new world, with barely a hint of other chaos to come.

Conductor Gray says of “The Creation:” “The human impulse to create works of art out of the recesses of our imagination is the same impulse the creator expressed in forming the material universe out of the void of eternity. What once was formless and empty is now teaming with miraculous variety and strange beauty. Haydn’s burst of musical creativity in ‘The Creation’ rivals the explosion of cosmic energy at the beginning of time. It is a masterpiece of seemingly infinite invention and infused with the joy of making things.”

Memorable visit

Pulitzer Prize winning composer Joseph Schwantner returned to Bloomington last week for a mini-residency that included a lecture and performance by the New Music Ensemble of two Schwantner works. He was here as first guest in the recently established “Five Friends Master Class Series,” honoring the five Jacobs School students who lost their lives in a plane crash some years ago.

I attended the Monday night lecture in Sweeney Hall, which focused heavily on the composer’s First Percussion Concerto. We heard portions of it as pages of the score flashed on screens up front. And he spoke of it, imparting lessons.

That composers face practical issues, such as Schwantner did with the premiere of the concerto by the New York Philharmonic, which commissioned it: how to position the star percussionist, principal Christopher Lamb, along with the other percussionists in the orchestra; how to maneuver over-sized instruments up and down stairs and elevators in Avery Fisher Hall; how to find space for Lamb’s individual rehearsals so that other Philharmonic employees weren’t constantly disturbed by the noise. When performance time comes around, said Schwantner, “logistical strategy” can become an important factor.

That music isn’t written out of a void: “It is about how you live your life,” he insisted.

“We are what we are because of our experiences. Experiences come out in the music we write.”

The concerto was written to remember a friend, fellow composer Stephen Albert, another Pulitzer Prize recipient, who was killed in an automobile accident. “He had a brilliant mind. He was a friend for life. Sometimes, he’d call me in the middle of the night to discuss an issue, and never mind that he woke me. He died at the apex of his creative life.”

The score, Schwantner explained, includes passages of serial music which, he said, Albert hated. “I wanted to write something that would piss him off.”

That composers hand over their music to interpreters: In the case of the First Percussion Concerto Schwantner did so to soloist Lamb. “Chris owns the piece,” he said. “I watched rehearsals for a recent Naxos recording with the Nashville Symphony. He determined from the start what was to be accomplished. It was amazing. He set the bar high, with an authority that comes from having played the piece for 17 years. The music has become his.”

Lamb, and other percussionists who have played the concerto, “lift the notes off the page and bring the music to life. That’s magic.”

The tribute

I didn’t know she was so ill. Mary Campbell died Oct. 19. I had seen her at recent concerts, just as I saw her time and again ever since she came to town 12 years ago. She’d been using a walker for some time, but, up to the last occasion we talked, she remained a smiling presence.

I knew Mary, and of her, long before she moved to Bloomington. Mary Campbell was a pioneer arts reporter and writer for the Associated Press, an outfit she served with distinction for more than four decades. She almost singlehandedly gave the AP a depth of arts coverage, day after day and year after year producing news stories and features and reviews, mostly about music and theater, but about the other arts as well. She was an outstanding reporter, a sensitive interviewer, and classy writer. Mary knew the arts, and she loved them.

Here, when we spoke, mostly after concerts, I recognized an appreciation for the quality of music she experienced in Bloomington, her recognition that local quality often matched what she experienced and wrote about during her New York years. She appeared happy in her retirement, wrote a book about choreographer Twyla Tharp, and helped the legendary Harvey Phillips complete his just-published autobiography, “Mr. Tuba.”

Above all that: Mary Campbell was a sweet, lovely woman. I’m proud to have known her. I admired and will miss her.

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