Well toward the end of Christopher Theofanidis’s enormous 2015 oratorio, “Creation/Creator,” the chorus sings text that was probably written by the academic art critic Michael Fried: “The essence of something is in its conviction.” There are no footnotes, but this sounds like something that Fried might have said. The musical setting is emphatic — full of conviction — with the words clearly articulated by the rhythms, and the harmony tinged with piquant dissonance. Fried is not so famous (at least in musical circles) as the other writers quoted in the libretto, including Franz Schubert, John Keats, Michelangelo and Franz Kafka. But his brief appearance offers an epigram suitable to the larger work, scored for a huge orchestra — and even bigger chorus, with actors, vocal soloists and accompanying videos — and lasting about an hour and a half.
Performed Friday evening by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, “Creation/Creator” is brimming with a generalized sense of conviction, the idea that ideas matter, and the conviction that there are important questions to be asked, if not answered. The title hints at a homage to Haydn’s late-18th-century oratorio “The Creation,” and to some degree it shares with that work an appealing refusal to be absolutely serious. But its real relatives are such distinctly American scores as Philip Glass’s Symphony No. 5 (which uses a similar mélange of religious and poetic texts), Hindemith’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and perhaps Leonard Bernstein’s musically and spiritually eclectic “Mass.” Theofanidis’s oratorio is an exemplar of one strain of American spirituality that takes its cues from the larger political project of inclusion and assimilation, with even God Himself invited to the party, but strictly admonished not to be too bossy.
The performance was brilliantly executed by a stunningly good choir; there seems to be no slippage since the days (more than 30 years ago) when the late conductor Robert Shaw built the Atlanta orchestra’s chorus into a vital center of the contemporary vocal tradition. Under the direction of conductor Robert Spano, the orchestra finessed a complicated work, full of textural and strategic challenges: the audibility of soloists, the interplay of spoken word and musical accompaniment. Theofanidis has built a close relationship with Atlanta, and the fruits of that collaboration should be more widely appreciated. So this is a perfect example of what the Shift festival, a joint project by the Kennedy Center and Washington Performing Arts, which presented the concert, can do: bring to the nation’s capital substantial works, and major orchestras, that need to be heard more widely.
The strength of the piece is its choral writing. Theofanidis can set unwieldy text with real grace and melodic flair. This gem of text from the Hindu hymns of the Rig Veda — “There was neither nonexistence nor existence then” — rises through unrelated but pleasingly consonant parallel harmonies, familiar from minimalism, but with an earworm catchiness. In a movement based on words by St. Augustine, including “A long time is only long because it is made of many successive moments,” the text is divided up among choral sections, sometimes word by word, mimicking the philosophical idea of division and continuity, with hypnotic musical results.
Other strengths of the piece include: an ebullient ritornello led by the strings, following a Truman Capote quote; a swelling meditation full of closely intertwined instrumental lines that elaborates on words from an Aboriginal invocation; and a passage from Verlaine, offering a lovely setting for the luxuriously toned mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke.
One might remove some of the purely spoken passages, including a monotonous shouted recitation of a Chinese creation myth, which interrupt the music, and plead for something in a more contemplative vein, that is, music that gets at the silence and nothingness from which thoughts about creativity often emerge. What would Mahler do? He’d do something like that. And the staging, including the presentation of the score to the audience at the end, is sometimes tacky. But these are minor quibbles with a major work.