Theofanidis’s “Creation/Creator” is sprawling success at ASO

Christopher Theofanidis’s far-ranging work, “Creation/Creator,” is the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s most ambitious undertaking so far this season. A 75-minute semi-staged piece that straddles the territory between oratorio, opera, and music theater, it brings together a large orchestra, full chorus, singers and actors.

The great strength of the work, which premiered Thursday, is Theofanidis’s imaginative score, an extravagant tapestry of very different sounds over the course of 15 movements. His power has always come from the breadth of his palette, with many “sound worlds,” as he described them. “But this is the first time they’ve been brought together all in one piece,” he commented.

And if there was a mid-20th Century neo-romantic feel to his sounds, with echoes of composers like Samuel Barber, Theofanidis brought his own voice, or voices, to the mix. We even got a few sections that echoed Philip Glass’s early works, with references to Albert Einstein thrown in for emphasis (“Einstein on the Beach” remains Glass’s iconic masterpiece).

Few living composers are better at writing for a large chorus, and the best sections of “Creation/Creator” come when the ASO chorus is most engaged, especially in striking complex á capella harmonies which bring to mind the thrilling sounds of a Russian vespers service.

Jessica Rivera is an ASO regular but has never sounded better than in this work, with numerous passages seemingly written for her high, floating, ethereal soprano. Baritone Nmon Ford did double duty as a fine actor/speaker and singer, with a bit of choreography thrown in for good measure. Evan Boyer sang with a rich, gravelly bass voice. Mezz-soprano Kelley O’Connor, another ASO favorite, brought her characteristic warm sound to her parts. Tenor Thomas Cooley and actors Shannon Eubanks and Steven Cole were similarly satisfying. But Cole, as a preacher delivering a monologue on the biblical creation story, especially suffered from Symphony Hall’s unique ability to swallow diction, rendering almost all of his words unintelligible. The same went for all the spoken portions of the work but most, unlike Cole, got projected titles.

The orchestra has had a roller-coaster year, but here, under music director Robert Spano, it was in excellent form in dazzling, shimmering passages. One memorable section played around with key signatures and the edges of tonality.

The text for “Creation/Creator” is a vast assemblage of quotes concerning the various creation stories and questions. Unfortunately, Theofanidis was unable to exclude anything, resulting in a lot of speeches, as there were too many words to set musically. It often felt like a college class where you were trying to get down all those quotes for some exam. They never stopped coming.

Director James Alexander added effective lighting, simple projections, and attractive costumes. A few moments seemed stagey, but mostly it worked.

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