Two titans of contemporary classical music paired for a second time to stage the masterpiece that is Creation/Creator. Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's Music Director and stalwart “headmaster” of the group that calls itself the “Atlanta School of Composers” Robert Spano, joined together with one of his star faculty members, composer Christopher Theofanidis, to again present this magnificent work in concert in Atlanta. Commissioned by the ASO, the oratorio’s first performance in 2015 was a tremendous success, and it resulted in a highly successful recording.

Robert Spano © Angela Morriss
Robert Spano
© Angela Morriss

The production was a theatrical powerhouse, including special lighting, video, two actors, a specially constructed stage in the middle of the orchestra for the five soloists, and some very effective audio augmentation that enhanced the audibility of the singers. The cantata is a series of texts from various religious, scientific, and artistic traditions, dealing with the general theme of creation and the creator, used in a broad sense. Included were musings about the time before creation, the logical need for a prime mover, the external reality of creation and the internal version that we use to makes sense of creation, the power of words, and the power of science. Theofanidis chose a wide-range of material that was multi-cultural and multi-disciplinary, highlighting the often similar views held by diverse peoples about creation and reality itself. 

Theofandis’ composition style builds on many influences, for example, the French impressionists, the minimalists, the Viennese masters. His music is not derivative, but rather it cleverly builds on a musical vocabulary that encourages the listener to feel right at home with this fairly new work. The composer is also a skillful orchestrator who uses the colors of an orchestra to underscore the meaning of the spoken word, without the music ever seeming like a soundtrack. For example, oriental decorations are used when the text is from the east, but it is subtle and sophisticated. There are 15 sections in the oratorio ranging from a Rumi story of the “Elephant in the Dark” to quotes of famous scientists (“Poets of Science”)  to Michelangelo’s quote about extracting “An Angel in Marble” and ending with a section titled “All Thing Bound in a Single Book,” with quotations from the Sefer Yetzirah, Melville, Whitman, and Dante. At the very end, Maestro Spano turned to the audience, holding the score over his head, as if making an offering to the audience (or the unseen gods) of the wisdom contained therein. Of all of the sections, the ninth one, titled “Two Girls” was especially powerful and beautiful. It concerns meaning found in a poem by the title characters, yet that meaning was not necessarily intended or even understood by the poet; a perfect distillation of how our own journeys have meaning for others, even though at times we fail to see it ourselves. 

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus was startling in it precision and clarity. It was beautifully prepared and its collective diction made the wisdom of generations clear and fully intelligible. The five soloists were wonderful vocally and, when called upon to act, they did so convincingly. Shannon Eubanks and Steven Cole were actors in two sections. Mr Cole was particularly effective in reading an African-American creation story based on the Christian tradition. 

Bravo to Maestro Spano who has the temerity to present to the Atlanta audience contemporary works that challenge, but also satisfy. And kudos to him for his nurturing of emerging composers and for helping the ASO remain at the forefront of American classical music.