Considering the magnificence of Haydn’s oratorio “The Creation,” and the hundreds – if not thousands – of choral performances that have taken place in Orange County over the years, you’d think the work would have appeared at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts at some point. But no. Until now, Haydn’s crowning achievement and the region’s performing arts hub have missed each other.
It’s a curious and unfortunate situation that will be rectified November 4, when the Pacific Chorale, under the baton of its artistic director Robert Istad, performs the work in the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. It’s a new venue for the piece, and a new experience for the conductor.
“This is my first time conducting ‘The Creation,’” says Istad. “I prepared the choruses for a colleague fourteen years ago, and I’ve always loved the work, but never conducted it. I feel I understand the classical style in a different way now, and I’m thrilled to do it.”
Grappling with the music and wrangling together the massive forces required to make such a substantial work come alive requires focus and dedication, of course. When I spoke with Istad, he was buried in the score, reacquainting himself with Haydn’s singular voice.
“I can never do enough analysis,” he says, “but one takes the analytical side and mixes it with the artistic operatic side. Haydn himself said ‘The Creation’ would be his greatest masterwork, and he really did it. It’s an astoundingly perfect piece, and for me, showing people why it’s so wonderful is the big challenge.
“Nothing is formulaic, the orchestra is filled with surprises. That’s why it’s wonderful and why I love studying it. Every time I look at a movement, even a chorus I’ve conducted for years, every time I find something surprising and beautiful. Something interesting that I’ve never seen before.”
Among the surprises is Haydn’s adventurous, exploratory approach to much of the work. In striving to create a composition that does justice to its subject matter, the composer pushed himself into new and realms of orchestral inventiveness. Istad specifically points to the Overture as an example of the work’s fresh viewpoint.
“The overture is so interesting and forward-looking,” says Istad. “During my doctoral studies, I tore this piece apart with a composition teacher. It anticipates Wagner and Berlioz, there are comparisons with the Tristan overture. Haydn was doing things that were not allowed, that were unfashionable, that were crazy at the time. But that’s because he was trying to represent the idea of chaos and felt the freedom to explore what chaos would sound like. The only way to do that was to get out of the sonata form, to disregard formal structure altogether.”
The performance is the Chorale’s first of the 2018-19 season, the second season with Istad in the top artistic leadership role. Istad served as the Chorale’s assistant conductor for 10 years and then was appointed artistic director after the chorale’s long-tenured former director, John Alexander, stepped down. So far, according to Istad, the transition has gone well.
“It feels so good,” he says. “Really positive. It’s a dream. The Pacific Chorale is one of the most highly-regarded choral organizations in the whole country, and even to have had the opportunity to audition for the position was an honor. When I was chosen over all the other candidates, I was overwhelmed. But you have to get over that and prove that you’re the person to lead, that will honor the Chorale’s legacy and past but make interesting changes and lead the singers in the right ways.
“We’re adapting very well. Luckily the people are all so wonderful, the staff in the office is so supportive and kind, the board is fantastic, and the singers have rallied around the cause and around me. We’ve all gotten used to each other quickly.”
For the performance, the Chorale will be joined by the Pacific Symphony, and soloists Elissa Johnston, Derek Hester, Paul Max Tipton, and Jane Hyunjung Shim. In addition, the music will be matched with video projections and media design by Martin Brinkerhoff Associates (MBA).
“When I programmed the work and talked with my colleagues, I told them that I believed the work would be enhanced by something visual, especially for modern audiences,” says Istad. “It’s a long piece and the orchestration and text lend themselves to visual interpretation. MBA is very inventive technically and will provide video art for the whole thing. These people are astounding, some of the best in the business, and I can’t believe they agreed to do it. It’s very exciting.
“What’s cool is the lead designer loves classical music and loves this piece and is as dedicated as me to make the score come alive. Not to detract or overshadow but to enhance; to create a real experience for the listener.”
Peter Lefevre is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.