Composer Theofanidis unconvincing as theologian in Atlanta Symphony’s “Creation/Creator”
On Friday evening Washington Performing Arts and the Kennedy Center presented the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, under conductor Robert Spano, as part of SHIFT: A Festival of American Orchestras. The featured work was an oratorio titled Creation/Creator, by composer Christopher Theofanidis, who created the work for the Atlanta forces.
Creation/Creator is a syncretistic 15-movement work. In his program note, Theofanidis says, “I sought texts that…cohered at some deeper philosophical level.” Since he juxtaposes pantheism and monotheism and other completely contradictory things in what seems like a mishmash from a freshman world religions textbook, what might this deeper level be?
The eclectic selection of texts touts everything from Hinduism’s extinction of the ego to its extension in various forms of artistic solipsism, ancient mythologies, bowdlerized biblical citations, and obiter dicta from various composers, scientists and other artists.
Underlying all appears to be Theofanidis’ desire to universalize the universal, a somewhat redundant task, which he undertakes by presupposing that various religions and mythologies are simply variants of one and the same reality. To make the point musically as well as textually, he uses an array of styles, but nothing very far out of the neo-tonal framework in which he typically writes.
The problem is Theofanidis seems not to understand any of the traditions he calls upon as they understood themselves and ends up homogenizing them in a New Age-y soup. If everything is reduced to symbols that are in the end interchangeable, the symbols themselves lose their seriousness.
That is why one finds nothing in this work of comparable power to, say, Haydn’s Creation which takes its sources seriously. As lovely as some of the music is, particularly in the vocal and choral writing, the work is curiously unmoving overall and seemed long at under 80 minutes.
It would be extremely difficult for anyone, even with Theofanidis’ evident gifts, to set his huge amount of text in melodically memorable ways. The work is stampeded by the sheer number of words.
Also, far too much of this work is at the declamatory level, whether by the speakers themselves or the chorus and orchestra together. Theofanidis uses his considerable skills as a composer effectively to illustrate words, but things go so much better when he slows things down in a section like “Two Girls,” based on a short poem, for soprano and mezzo, that demonstrates how gratefully he writes for voice when there is time for a melody. One wished for more such moments of repose and grace.
Nothing could be faulted on the performers’ parts. Whatever reservations one might have about the oratorio, it is always thrilling to hear an orchestra and chorus of this caliber perform so well, under such a capable conductor as Robert Spano, in a work they obviously know well. Soprano Jessica Rivera, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, tenor Thomas Cooley, baritone Nmon Ford and bass Evan Boyer all sang solidly.
There is a 2015 CD recording of this work by these same forces, which is pleasant enough in parts, but not to the extent that it would invite frequent rehearing.