In The Creation, the chorus essentially represents the voice of God in the opening of the oratorio by Joseph Haydn, which is one reason that James Bass started with that section in his rehearsals of the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay.
"One of the most exposed moments for the chorus is right away, right after the representation of chaos, and the chorus has this moment when it has to represent the voices of the ether, in a sense, and say that God has created light,'' he said.
Bass, 37, became artistic director of the Master Chorale this year, as well as director of choral studies at the University of South Florida. His first task involving a performance by the chorus has been to prepare it for next weekend's concerts of Haydn's oratorio with the Florida Orchestra.
"I think The Creation is the absolute perfect first piece for me,'' said Bass, who succeeded Richard Zielinski. "It's plenty of singing for us, 30 to 35 minutes of just choral singing, so it allows you to set some intonation standards for your group. It allows me, in a selfish way, to discuss with the chorale my standards of tone, my standards of color and dynamics.''
The Creation is Haydn's inspired response to hearing Messiah, Israel in Egypt and other oratorios by Handel during visits to England in the 1790s. The original text on God, humanity, nature and the creation of the world — a mix of biblical verse from Genesis and sections of Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost — was in English, but Haydn had it translated into his native German (as Die Schopfung) when he composed the score.
When the oratorio was originally published, Haydn included both the German and the English texts, making it the first bilingual work in Western musical history. The Master Chorale will sing the English text, using an edition by Nicholas Temperley.
Bass, who previously was director of choral studies at Western Michigan University, has sung The Creation as a soloist — naturally, he is a bass — and as part of a chorus. He loves the work's classical clarity.
"We live in an HD TV era; we want everything in high definition,'' he said. "It's kind of classical music HD, this piece. It's not muddy; it's clear, refined and defined. If you don't like something in it, just wait two or three minutes, you're going to get something different. You get a beautiful aria, you get a duet, you get a chorus.
"There is also a sense of joy in The Creation that I haven't felt in many works. It feels honest. Gentle and happy. The physical representation of watching the firmaments being created — and how happy that is — is in this work. And once you get to the third part, in the duet between Adam and Eve, it expresses the greatest aspects of human love.''
The Master Chorale and orchestra performed The Creation in 2002, with Zielinski conducting (he's now director of choral activities at the University of Oklahoma). This time around, orchestra music director Stefan Sanderling will be on the podium, making his first appearance of the season.
Haydn's oratorio has five characters with solos, but the soprano and baritone parts of Gabriel and Raphael are often doubled with Eve and Adam, so next weekend there will be three soloists: Heidi Grant Murphy, soprano; Bryon Grohman (replacing Philippe Castagner, who had to cancel because of illness), tenor; and Leon Williams, baritone.
Soprano Murphy was Eve on a celebrated 1992 recording of The Creation conducted by Robert Shaw. "I grew up with the Shaw recording,'' said Bass. "I tried to stay away from the Shaw completely because it had been my icon, and I didn't want it to influence my thinking.''
The Master Chorale has 141 singers, and they are unpaid. In fact, for the first time in the group's 33-year history, chorus members this season are paying dues of $150 to belong. The income is needed for the chorale to stay afloat in these difficult economic times.
"It was very tough,'' said Bass, adding that the chorus gave 15 members scholarships to cover the dues. "But we couldn't write a ticket for everyone, or else we couldn't survive. These people are very special because they sing in the chorale because they love it.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.