John Hsu's choice of The Creation, by Joseph Haydn, to mark the occasion of his retirement might seem symbolic. After 50 years of teaching, the Cornell Professor of Music stands poised on the threshold of the next chapter of his life and career, like Adam and Eve at the gates of Eden in John Milton's Paradise Lost, one of the main sources for Haydn's oratorio.
"But it's more concrete than symbolic," Hsu explained. For music aficionados, The Creation is probably the most performed oratorio second only to Handel's Messiah. It's a masterpiece Hsu has loved for many years, especially because of his involvement with historical performance practice. In 1995, Oxford University Press published a new performance edition by A. Peter Brown, then professor at the Indiana University School of Music.
"When I saw it, it was like a new piece to me," Hsu said. "Not in content but in the richness of information."
"In this latest edition, Professor Brown provided much new information about how the piece was performed in Haydn's time, based on original orchestral and vocal parts used for the first performances in Vienna as well as accounts of those performances," Hsu said. "What this new edition reveals is a far more descriptive and cohesive work than I had heard in previous performances and imagined in reading other editions of the score."
Hsu was hooked by this "new view of an old masterpiece. I wanted one more shot at it, to make it as dramatic and imaginative," he said.
In order to realize this project, which has been two years in the making, Hsu needed more than the combined forces of Cornell's Chorus and Glee Club. A 53-piece orchestra has been contracted to play the four rehearsals and the performance; the "Creation Festival Orchestra" is comprised of players from the Cayuga Chamber Orchestra, Syracuse Symphony, Binghamton Philharmonic, Rochester Philharmonic and other professionals in the Upstate area.
The soloists representing three Archangels, actually tell the story: soprano Judith Kellock of the Cornell faculty as "Gabriel," tenor David Parks of the Ithaca College faculty as "Uriel," and baritone Richard Lalli from Yale University as "Raphael." In Part III, Lalli and Kellock will assume the roles of Adam and Eve.
Haydn (1732-1809) composed The Creation late in his career, between 1796 and 1798. The story of the Creation as told in his oratorio is adapted primarily from three sources: Book I of Genesis, Milton's Paradise Lost and the Book of Psalms. Parts I and II are based on the biblical six days of creation, while the shorter Part III describes Adam and Eve in Paradise. Music Scholar James Webster described the work as "full of marvelous examples of 'word-painting': the analogical or associative musical illustration of ideas and concepts in the text."
Hsu, the Old Dominion Foundation Professor of Humanities and Music, has been a member of Cornell's music faculty since 1955 and was department chairman from 1966 to 1971. He has taught courses in music theory and music history and performance; directed the Collegium Musicum, Cornell Chamber Orchestra, Cornell Symphony Orchestra and Sage Chapel Choir; and coached chamber music.
Hsu has also had a varied performing career as a conductor and as a world-renowned player of the viola da gamba and baryton, as well as the cello, Baroque cello and harpsichord. He is presently artistic director emeritus of the Aston Magna Foundation for Music and the Humanities and conductor of the Apollo Ensemble (a period-instrument chamber orchestra). As instrumentalist and conductor, Hsu has recorded award-winning CDs and toured throughout this country and Europe. In May 2000, the French government and its ministry of culture presented Hsu with the high honor of Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for his extensive research on the music of French composer Marin Marais.
Hsu developed his interest and expertise in early music performance when he joined the Cornell faculty in 1955. "Donald [Grout], then chair of the department, asked me one day whether I would be willing to learn to play the viola da gamba if the university were to provide the instrument. Being young and foolhardy, I said yes, without thinking about the necessary investment of time or assessing the chance of success while preoccupied as a cellist and teacher," Hsu recalled in an article he wrote in 1991. Because of the paucity of published solo music and instructional sources for the viola da gamba, Hsu did his own research and, after reconstructing their playing technique, produced the first recordings of works by the French composers Antoine Forqueray and Marais.
Wanting to "share my esoteric interests," Hsu founded the Cornell Summer Viol Program in 1970 to bring together qualified viol players from across the country. In the late '60s and early '70s, the music department attracted several musicians whose expertise included historical performance practice. This led to the creation, in 1983, of the Center for Eighteenth-Century Music as well as a new graduate degree, Doctor of Musical Arts in Historical Performance of Eighteenth-Century Instrumental Music.
Hsu, who will be 74 next month, is slowing down but has no intention of stopping. Although he had to stop playing because of his "wear and tear" arthritis and will no longer be teaching, Hsu will continue to conduct the Baroque Orchestra in Atlanta, to which he is also the artistic advisor.
Hsu and his wife plan on wintering down south and spending the warmer months in Ithaca. As a man who has spent his life moving between the eighteenth century and the present, Hsu is excited about the prospect of having two homes.
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The Creation will be performed March 12 at 8 p.m. in Ithaca College's Ford Hall in the James J. Whalen Center for Music. Prior to the performance, which is funded in part by a grant from the Dallas Morse Coors foundation, James Webster, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Music, will deliver a pre-concert lecture at 7:15 p.m. in the Iger Lecture Hall (Room 2105, Whalen Center for Music).
Admission to the concert is $15, student tickets are $8 (reserved seating). Tickets may be purchased through the Ticket Center at Clinton House, in person or by phone at 273-4497; at the Willard Straight Hall ticket office (in person only); or online through the www. IthacaEvents.com or www.arts.cornell. edu/music/concerts.html.