Musical Arts Society re-creates 'The Creation' at UNLV

One man wields the power to move Haydn and Earth.

"It's about cosmic grandeur," says Douglas Peterson, perhaps not overstating the scope of "The Creation," Joseph Haydn's composition of biblical proportions. "It's surely one of the world's treasures."

Evolutionists, scientists, atheists, agnostics, secularists of all stripes -- no one's not invited to Peterson's Genesis-minded musical tableau as his Southern Nevada Musical Arts Society presents Haydn's sprawling ode to the Old Testament's opening chapter at Artemus Ham Hall at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas on Sunday.

"Haydn was so successful in describing musically the heavenly and earthly order, out of chaos comes the stars, plants, animals and mankind, all under the hand of God," says Peterson, whose interpretation -- on its fourth spin around the Vegas cosmos, having been performed here in 1972, '88 and '98 -- will be handled by the society's 70-voice chorus and 35-piece orchestra, backing three guest soloists: soprano Alisa Thomason, tenor Gerald Grahame and bass-baritone Neil Wilson.

"In some people's minds, it ranks right up there with (Handel's) 'Messiah,' but it isn't performed as often," Wilson says from his Oregon home. "I've done 'Messiah' more than 80 times in the last 35 years, but Hayden's 'Creation' I haven't done even a dozen times. Part of it is that it is a lot of work for a choral group to put together."

Considered Haydn's masterpiece, "The Creation" is an oratorio, originally written in German between 1796 and 1798, based on Genesis, The Book of Psalms and John Milton's epic poem, "Paradise Lost." Deeply religious, Haydn once said that "I was never so devout as when I was at work on 'The Creation.' I fell on my knees each day and begged God to give me the strength to finish the work."

Biblical verse is divided among a trio of archangels: Uriel, the angel of the sun and daylight, who describes man; Raphael, singing of the beasts, great whales and "every living creature that moveth," and reporting God's blessing, "Be fruitful and multiply"; and Gabriel, who leads the heavenly hosts (the chorus) and characterizes the vegetable kingdom and bird life.

"I just have fun with the words. I feel like I'm dealing with acoustical calligraphy," says Wilson, who sings the role of Raphael. "He talks about the roaring lion, he talks about the worm, the different animals, painting a picture of The Creation, the light coming forth, the seas being created, the landscape that is so beautiful and bucolic. Haydn knows how to write for the singer and not do strange things for effects, but a lot of the effects are really done by the orchestra."

Peterson puts it this way: "There are some magical strokes by Haydn. He begins with the dawn of time and this one major chord. The archangel recites the most famous words, 'In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth. And God said, "Let there be light." ' And the chorus sings with great theatricality, 'AND THERE WAS LIGHT!' "

Light's flashy entrance is depicted first with a soft pizzicato from the strings, followed by the chord Peterson mentions -- a shocking fortissimo C-major on the word "Light." That moment startled the crowd at the piece's public premiere in Vienna.

As a friend of Haydn's reported at the time: "When light broke out for the first time, one would have said that rays darted from the composer's burning eyes. The enchantment of the electrified Viennese was so general that the orchestra could not proceed for some minutes."

Though he's performed "The Creation" with full orchestras several times, Wilson has downscaled it as well.

"I've done it with just an organ in a church, which is kind of like going from high-definition television to the old black and white," says Wilson, who would appreciate a more ornate approach.

"I would certainly welcome a multimedia performance like motion pictures during live performances to enhance what's going on in the music," he says. "Some people think such a performance might draw people who might not otherwise come. But I think it stands for itself."

And then there was ... music.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@ or 702-383-0256.