There is a bit of irony in ending with the beginning. Erin Freeman’s farewell concert is Haydn’s “Creation,” an oratorio based on the first, world-building chapters of “Genesis.”
For the past fifteen years, Freeman has led the Richmond Symphony Chorus, an award-winning, 150-member volunteer ensemble. Her next role is as artistic director of the City Choir of Washington (see our story on her leaving). Given the scale of Freeman’s artistic activities, maybe “The Creation” makes perfect sense.
Leading massed voices is a subtle art. Filling the space of a concert hall requires more than a big group of talented people singing the right notes. “The impact of the sum is greater than the parts,” Freeman says. “The reason I love the Rockettes is not because they're the best dancers in the country- because they probably aren’t. But they are better because they are absolutely in unison. A successful chorus is like the Rockettes of the vocal world. The unanimity comes from total alignment of old-fashioned vowels and final consonants.”
Alignment of pitch allows clear overtones, the harmonics that play a huge role in how music is heard. There are tricks to that as well. “Sometimes a rich bass passage is almost inaudible,” Freeman says. “So, I get the best singers in the section to sing that part a bit softly and an octave higher. It’s not in the score, but it makes a big difference.”
That trick isn’t necessary for “The Creation,” but Hayden’s masterpiece has its own epic challenges. Where the professional players in the symphony may focus intently on a program for a couple of weeks, it takes months to prepare during the 2.5 hour weekly nighttime chorus practices. “It’s your job as a conductor to take people from where they are, and with positive support to take them to the next level and then push them a little farther,” Freeman says.
The Richmond performance features a new English libretto, replacing the original German translation of the King James Bible, which fits the meter but in previous versions becomes notoriously awkward when translated back into English. Like the Biblical text, the oratorio starts in chaos, a slow sonata in an ambiguous C Minor that resolves to a gloriously definitive C Major with the word “Light.” Sections detail the Genesis sequence, pausing for an early reference to “Paradise Lost” and day-ending angelic celebrations.
Where the first section covers the inanimate world, the earth, ocean, sun and moon, the second covers the explosion of life, fish, birds, beasts, and ultimately mankind. The final section is set in the Garden of Eden. “Adam and Eve sing of their love for each other, and for God, and for the Garden, and yada, yada, yada,” Freeman says. “But before the big happy fugue that you expect to end a good, old fashioned large work for chorus and orchestra there just a bit of a warning in a minor key -- because we know that there’s about to be a snake and a whole bunch of problems. Of course, Haydn never wrote that part. But I love that little bit of shade before the joyous finale.”
The piece was chosen long before Freeman knew she was leaving. But the hopefulness of the piece resonates with this moment of new beginnings. That there is bittersweet tinge is perfect, too.
Erin Freeman will conduct the Richmond Symphony and Chorus in a performance of Haydn's "The Creation" at the Carpenter Theatre on Saturday, April 9 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 10 at 3 p.m. For tickets and info, go to richmondsymphony.com