Even, or perhaps especially, artists notable for their originality can receive a jolt of creativity from encountering someone else’s genius. That’s what happened when Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn visited London in the 1790s.
He had already essentially invented the symphony and string quartet, and was revered as his era’s pre-eminent composer along with his friend Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Haydn wrote his final 12 symphonies for his concerts in London, but while there he heard oratorios by George Frideric Handel and was bowled over by their beauty, grandeur and vivid characterizations. His creative response was the crown of his achievements — the oratorio “The Creation.”
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra music director Manfred Honeck will juxtapose oratorios by Haydn and Handel at the final BNY Mellon Grand Classics concerts of the year. “The Creation” will be presented in a semi-staged production by Sam Helfrich on Dec. 1 and 3, and Handel’s “Messiah” in a straight concert performance Dec. 2, both at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall. The Mendelssohn Choir will perform during both productions.
Honeck likes to present oratorios with extra dimensions, as he and Helfrich have done in the past with “Messiah” and Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion.
“I want to bring this wonderful music into context for our society, our life, our time. I know these pieces which were written hundreds of years ago made a tremendous impression on people,” he says. “But nowadays, when we have heard a Mahler symphony, Stravinsky, even folk music, we have a lot of different experiences. It’s wonderful to give people an idea of how you can translate the story into our time and make it more understandable.”
Helfrich’s staging presents the three-parts of “The Creation” in two acts — the first six days and a separate story of love.
“The first act is set in a classroom because of the way the piece yielded itself to us,” Helfrich says. “The three characters — the angels Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel — basically speak about or report on creation. Unlike St. John or ‘Messiah’ there is no plot. Putting it in a classroom is a way to animate it, dramatize it and make it fun.”
In addition to the teacher’s and students’ desks, the performance will feature a large video production.
“The piece is so full of visual references it’s irresistible,” he says.
The images were selected by video designer Greg Emetaz with Helfrich and reflect the personality of each of the characters.
Uriel, the teacher, takes a strictly biblical point of view and is accompanied by religious images.
The other characters are teens. Raphael’s images are what a teenage boy might imagine, including a volcano and monsters.
Gabriel sees everything with photo realism. She’s a bit more political, oriented toward peace and environmental activism.
Helfrich says his approach to the final act builds on lightness and a sense of humor. It begins “like a prom date” with awkwardness and nervousness, but proceeds to a dance extravaganza before “shifting forward to an exploration of their relationship through the ups and downs of married life.”
Mark Kanny is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.