Meditations on Music: Hadyn’s “The Creation”

This past Friday, April 29, in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel, the Lawrence Symphony Orchestra, Viking Chorale, Concert Choir, Cantala and three soloists—two alumni and a current student—came together to perform one of Franz Joseph Haydn’s most well-known works, “The Creation.” Throughout its three parts, the oratorio details the events of the beginning of Book of Genesis—God’s creation of the world in seven days and Adam and Eve’s blissful first days in the Garden of Eden.

The story is told by the programmatic music from the orchestra, soloists representing three archangels and the choir representing the hosts of heaven. I liked this use of medium for retelling the story and certain parts stuck out to me, but to be honest, I did not revel in the music.

When I was first asked to cover this concert, I agreed with slight hesitation—a mix of nervousness and excitement. At the time, I had not reviewed a traditional classical concert since early high school, and my reviews were not nearly as strong then. However, I thought that this assignment would be a learning experience for me and get me to do something I never really have done—write about music I know little about and do not really enjoy.

I want to make this clear, though: from my previous sentence, it sounds like this article will be a review bashing an overall strong performance, but it will not be. I strongly believe that one—especially a critic/journalist/whatever I am—can learn at least a little from any musical performance, and sometimes that learning happens in an uncomfortable or undesirable situation.

I also want to make clear that this will not be a review of the performance itself, but rather of my thought process and reaction to it spiraling in and out of control throughout about 1,000 words. I like using this column as a means to meditate on certain ideas relating to music, whatever they may be. The aspect of this concert that drew me in was that I have never had trouble writing about music or connecting to it, but this time, I did. I hope to use this meditation as a way to deal with my own confusion and faults as a music journalist.

The hardest problem to deal with was my lack of ideas and recognition that I would not feel the same about this concert as say, a free jazz performance. I felt less at ease after hearing from several friends participating in the performance that it would not be anything special, even that it would not sound that good due to lack of preparation. Thus, going into it, I was at a loss of what I would write about.

During the performance, my lack of ideas was probably worse. I had less of an idea what to write about, but it sounded good for the most part. Again, I do not know much at all about choir or orchestra performances, but it certainly did not sound bad or ill-prepared to me. Despite some performers’ apprehension, the concert overall was jovial and the happiness was contagious—it was a celebration. But I knew I could not just write a review saying “it sounded good to this guy who is not in the theory sequence and only plays jazz and improvisatory music and is predominantly a writer in the college.” But it also did not move me. As my more consistent readers probably can tell, I am always moved at least a little by the music I write about, and usually it tends to move me a lot. With this concert, though, I felt nothing.

I realize the readers of this meditation who were part of the large ensemble may be slightly offended by my review, but the main thing I learned from this concert is that I should be honest with what I think, merely because it does not make sense for me to sugarcoat my thoughts or even completely alter them, producing a review dripping with music theory vocabulary that I know little about. To me, the importance of writing about music stems from the desire for others to peer into the writer’s thoughts. Sure, it is nice to read a simple review of an album, critiquing the band’s sound, approach to composition and the like. Sure, it is nice to read that the performers did a bang-up job and the audience applauded for several minutes. These things are all great and certainly aid many readers in finding things to listen to or provide something to compare their own critiques to, but the most accurate documentation of a writer’s connection to the music typically comes out in a no-holds-barred, stream-of-consciousness meditation, at least for me.

The strangest part of this concert and covering it was that it was the first concert I felt almost no connection to. This is not to say it was a bad thing—there is plenty of music people will hear and not connect to much but still enjoy. I did enjoy it—the harmonies and rich, full sound of such a huge ensemble was incredible to hear, as it is completely unlike what I listen to normally. And the soloists—Emily Birsan ’08, Evan Bravos ’10 and freshman Luke Honeck, the latter filling in as a substitute right before the concert—were fantastic. I was able to clearly understand them and they took the music and text as their own, just like any jazz musician covering a song would.

Despite all of these good things, I did not feel a connection. I personally did not resonate with the performance, but I felt its unique power based on the appreciation of the audience in the Chapel around me. Attending so many moving concerts that cater to more of a niche group and seeing this concert positively affect a completely different group of people when I was not affected made me feel content in a strange way. There is going to be music out there that most people will enjoy, but I will not, and music that I will enjoy, but most people will not. This concert was a testament to the former, and I am fine with that. It was difficult at first to write my thoughts about this concert, and even more difficult to openly share them, but knowing that I am remaining honest and that I gained something from this experience means the most to me as a writer and listener.