Innovation gives spark to an odd coupling

By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / November 16, 2009

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Emmanuel Music is devoting this season to Haydn and Schoenberg. On the surface they make for an odd tandem: the sunny and buoyant 18th-century master with the darkly intense 20th-century bête noire. But at Saturday’s concert, “Inventing Genesis,’’ they were connected immediately and ingeniously by conductor John Harbison.

It opened with Schoenberg’s “Prelude (Genesis),’’ his contribution to a multi-composer suite on the Genesis story. It is a powerfully compact portrayal of the universe before creation. Written in the composer’s mature 12-tone style, it unfolds in a series of potent sonic effects. At its climax, Schoenberg introduces a wordless chorus, giving the coda a quiet, haunted feel.

The piece ends with the women of the chorus singing the note C. Harbison held that final moment; then, with barely a pause, he brought the orchestra in on the same note: This was the opening of “The Representation of Chaos,’’ the harmonically adventurous prelude to Haydn’s oratorio “The Creation.’’ It was a brilliant bit of programming: The two works were linked not just by that note and their subject matter but by their mutual sense of musical innovation. No composer who followed could ignore their achievements.

Haydn follows that picture of disorder with art of supreme order - a ceaselessly inventive portrayal of the wonders of both heaven and earth. Emmanuel’s musicians got off to a somewhat tentative start, not only in the Schoenberg but also in the Haydn, where there was unsteadiness in ensemble and intonation in the first part. But the performance blossomed into one of great imagination and intensity. The chorus was outstanding throughout, and the three large choral numbers that end each part were brought off with joyous energy.

The soloists were all strong. Soprano Kendra Colton and baritone David Kravitz were the standouts as the angels Gabriel and Raphael in the first two parts; each sang not only with power and eloquence but a deep understanding of the text. Tenor Matthew Anderson, as Uriel, had a sweet and appealing voice but sounded somewhat expressionless next to them.

Part three centers on Adam and Eve and featured an ethereal Kristen Watson and a stalwart Mark McSweeney. The wind playing in the orchestra was brilliant and full of character, and Michael Beattie did excellent continuo work at the piano. Harbison led this lengthy and involving concert with alertness to every essential detail of both scores.

EMMANUEL MUSIC John Harbison, conductor

At: Emmanuel Church, Saturday

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