Haydn’s Creation is a nostalgic piece. Much like Handel’s Messiah but without the holiday kitsch that its gathered over the years, the oratorio brings an audience that has known the piece since childhood, that taps its toes and has favorite arias. Houston Symphony’s Creation was not pristine, but it caught the emotion overall so well that perhaps the out-of-place details don’t matter.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada © Werner Kmetitsch
Andrés Orozco-Estrada
© Werner Kmetitsch
Prompted by impresario Johann Peter Salomon, Haydn composed The Creation using text (a mixture of Genesis and Milton’s Paradise Lost) from an unknown English author that was translated into German and re-translated into English by Baron Gottfried van Swieten. It saw its first performance Vienna in 1798. On screens flagging the stage, English supertitles complemented art that was drawn by children in local Houston schools. Images of whales leaping through water and smudged starry skies framed dramatic melodic interludes with childlike wonder.

The Symphony opened the work with an elegant, muted tone, drawing out melodic suspensions luxuriously – particularly the lower strings. Making a happy Houston Symphony debut, tenor Toby Spence picked up where the strings left off with the first aria. He is an exultant performer, expressive in voice and body, with higher instrument that sounds surprisingly round and warm.

As Gabriel and Eva, soprano Nicole Heaston delivered a tone that felt like the very beam of heaven. Bright and colorful, her voice ushers listeners into the music like a gracious host. While she made it look easy, the trills and ornamental flourishes that Heaston tossed off betrayed deft attention to technique and detail. Her skill was further emphasized during the ensembles with bass singer Peter Rose, who struggled to deliver melodic lines with the same accuracy. There is no doubt Rose has vocal heft (Wagner appears often in his resume, and I can hear why), and he has a certain command to his low held notes, but in this performance it wasn’t because of any technical agility on his part. At times he sounded almost congested, and I wondered if either he was coming down with a cold or perhaps that Houston’s notorious allergens had gotten the best of him.

The chorus, directed by Betsy Cook Weber, while not always pristine had overwhelming heart. Accurate in intonation and phrasing, the spaces between – those critical gaps of rest that separate a good choir from a brilliant one – were missing. But overwhelmingly, the feeling was there, genuinely fervent and big with gusto.

And the relish that polished this Creation into a satisfying whole was a direct product of the Symphony’s music director and conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada. Closing the oratorio, “Singt dem Herren alle Stimmen!” was a feat of his direction. Alto Sean Jackson, who joined the soloists from the choir, leapt incredibly into a duet with Spence, and the orchestra and chorus teemed with satisfying culminations of harmony. He directed to the point of his fingertips – something spectacular to see work with such a large group under his command.

The Creation ends victoriously, but there’s always a sense I get at its close that humanity’s demise in the Garden of Eden is hanging ominously in the wings. Houston Symphony’s performance was all about light, the miracles we can marvel at without the weight of the world for an evening.