As I was reading the program notes for the ASO’s performance of Theofanidis’ new oratorio “Creation/Creator,” I was amazed by the variety of themes and perspectives that he was exploring with the piece. I couldn’t imagine how someone could manage to bring such disparate parts together into a coherent whole and was somewhat excited to see how he pulled it off. You can imagine my disappointment to find that his imagination did not rise above my own in this regard as he completely failed to produce a piece with any meaningful sense of flow.
The oratorio puts to music a hodgepodge of stories and quotes on the notion of creation — both in the sense of the creation of the word and in the sense of artistic creativity. He makes use of a full symphony orchestra augmented with an electric bass guitar and a synthesizer, a chorus, and seven voice soloists: soprano; mezzo; tenor; baritone; bass; and one actor of each sex. The staging made use of projected images to compliment the various movements and there was some small amount of blocking for the soloists and, though I won’t get into it, Spano and the chorus. And, with all of this, the composer built something disjointed, trite, chintzy, and tiresome.
I mentioned already how he failed to draw all of the written material into a coherent whole. The music, sadly, followed the same path. Theofanidis employed a number of different (sometimes drastically so) styles of music for this piece and never seemed to feel the need to segue between them. We heard everything from Romanticism to Post Minimalism to Broadway to unaccompanied narration. On occasion, the style seemed to fit the text but, sadly, for the most part it did not. There was often a huge disconnect between the tone of the text being sung or read and the affect expressed by the music. Never did he manage to bring meaningful gravitas or a sense of humorous lightness to anything where it belonged.
Not only did the music fail to bring any depth to the text, but the arrangement of text itself generally removed any lingering profundity. Two movements were made up of a series of short quotations: one set with natural philosophers and scientists and the other quoting from artists about art. The quotes in both movements were presented without any meaningful context and came across as a quote-of-the-day calendar being put to music. Indeed, you could probably look at the entire oratorio as a staging of some precocious teenager’s Tumblr, filled with those little graphics with something inspirational or ‘profound’ written in them. Indeed, that description is even more apt when you take into account the accompanying projections made on the wall of the acoustic shell. The projected images felt less like a meaningful accompaniment to the piece and more like the kind of things that a pops orchestra projects above itself to give those who are less accustomed to sitting in a concert hall something to do with their eyes.
I hate to say something so ad hominem, but the composer, whose other work I generally have enjoyed, really didn’t seem to have a serious grasp of anything that he put into the piece. He certainly didn’t seem to have anything to say about creation and the piece offers nothing to stir thought and discussion among the audience members. In the pre-concert interview, he stated that he had assistants help him find the written material that he used, which leaves me wondering if he had any really inspiration beyond “wouldn’t an oratorio on creation and creativity be cool?”
I’ll admit that there was some decent music here and there in the piece, but more often than not it just didn’t fit in well. The only two movements that seemed to really gel into something meaningful were “In the Eternal” and “I, a Universe of Atoms,” which employed texts by St. Augustine and Richard Feynman, respectively. The latter was set to broadway-style music that I’d find more appropriate in a Pops concert than a classical concert. The St Augustine was set as a wonderful Baroque-style choral fugue sung by the unaccompanied ASO Chorus (maybe? I listened to Debussy on the way home and am now listening to Jazz and can’t quite conjure the music in my head). These were not the only full movements with accompanying music that were dedicated to just one respective thinker — the piece began with a smattering of stories from E and SE Asia and there were two delightful poems rendered nearly sterile scattered later — however, it really did feel like these two pieces were the only ones in which the ideas set forth in them were fully realized in the music and meaningfully contemplated by the author.
A final complaint that, sadly, applies far too often to far too many performing arts events is that they seemed to be more interested in documenting the performance than creating a good experience for the audience. Mike stands and hanging mikes blocked soloists and the projected images. We were discouraged from making noises, meaning that the occasional well deserved laughs were muffled, making it somewhat harder for people to become engrossed in the show.
They stated that they were recording this for an upcoming CD but I honestly can’t recommend that anyone listen to it, much less buy it. I’ll probably end up turning off the radio and listening to an album or something on YouTube when WABE broadcasts it. Frankly, I think that my time would have been better spent on other things, like watching an amateur production of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Cats” and I don’t particularly want a recording to remind me of this evening.