Handel and Haydn launches 200th anniversary season with Baroque splendor

October 12, 2014
By David Wright

Harry Christophers opened the Handel and Haydn Society’s 200th anniversary season Friday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Stu Rosner

Message to college students now flocking to Boston: Symphony Hall is the party house.

First it was the glittering inauguration of Andris Nelsons as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with trumpets in the balcony and TV cameras everywhere.  Then, on Friday, the Handel and Haydn Society and its artistic director Harry Christophers threw a joyous party for an occasion that could, for once, truly be called unique.

As far as anybody seems to know, no continuously operating performing arts organization in America has ever celebrated its 200th birthday before.

Of course the occasion called for fireworks, and so Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks was on the bill.  So were the string pyrotechnics of “Summer” from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (in an incendiary performance by violinist and orchestra leader Aisslinn Nosky), and the choral conflagration of Bach’s motet Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, BWV 225.

And yes, there were trumpets in the balcony, pealing out the Toccata from Monteverdi’s Orfeo to launch the proceedings.

With the exception of that opening fanfare and a brief part-song for men’s chorus by Sir John Stevenson (1761-1833), it was an all-Baroque evening, tacitly recognizing that, with Handel and Haydn’s recent evolution into a period-instruments ensemble, its center of gravity has shifted toward the first of its eponymous composers. Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), nearly a contemporary composer when the Handel and Haydn Society was founded in 1815, will get his due later, with a symphonic program in January and The Creation in May.

But really, who does fire and splendor better than those fellows from the mid-1700s?  And was there ever (other than the transition to the finale of Beethoven’s Fifth) music of prolonged suspense to match the soft yet agitated prelude to Handel’s coronation anthem, Zadok the Priest?

When, on Friday, the chorus finally exploded with its fortissimo entrance in Zadok, it probably loosened whatever Symphony Hall plaster was left after Nelsons’s rendition of The Pines of Rome two weeks before.

One must acknowledge they had help from some enthusiastic young voices, the Young Men’s Chorus and Young Women’s Chamber Choir from Handel and Haydn’s community-outreach Vocal Arts Program.

Everybody loves a choral fff, but the lasting impression left that evening by the Handel and Haydn Society Chorus—“prepared,” as the saying goes, by Christophers himself rather than a choral conductor-collaborator—was of an amazingly versatile instrument at all dynamic levels, and in all degrees of articulation from crisp staccato to airy détaché to buttery legato, and in all hues and shades of vocal tone.

Those skills were abundantly displayed in Bach’s exuberant motet for double chorus Singet dem Herrn–an appropriate selection for this night, given its traditional association with the birthday of Elector Friedrich August of Saxony in 1727.  (This connection has not been definitively established, as the program notes by Teresa M. Neff, PhD., conscientiously pointed out.)

The energy and articulation of the chorus (and of the orchestra reinforcing their parts) kept Bach’s dense double quartet of vocal lines airborne.  In the middle movement, a chorale setting, textures were artfully layered, smooth for the hymn tune and staccato for the commentary.  The interlacing phrases of the closing fugue were like a torrent over rocks, surging and splashing.

Through it all, the chorus’s attention to attacks and cutoffs—and different kinds of same—was exemplary.  Its German diction across all parts (yes, basses too) was as clear as a person talking to you.  Well, all right, eight people.

After so much definition and detail, Symphony Hall suddenly seemed too small for the raw, outdoorsy sound of Music for the Royal Fireworks.  A big initial drum roll seemed to blow the walls down, and strings and brass called to each other across the watery expanse of the Thames.

Christophers reinforced the spacious feeling by taking an especially broad tempo in the Ouverture, making it a sober foil to the speedy, nimble dances that followed.  These latter moved with infectious rhythmic verve through a wide variety of orchestral textures, dreamed up by Handel and vividly conveyed by the Handel and Haydn players.

Particular mention must be made of the trumpet and horn sections, which, despite the fiendish difficulty of playing their “natural” (i.e., valveless) Baroque instruments, not only had a nearly flawless night, but demonstrated that stringed instruments do not have a monopoly on loud-and-soft shadings and expressive phrasing.

It also must be noted that some early-music specialists might prefer a more bar-by-bar relation of details in the music, and a more “terraced” approach to dynamics than the grand sweep of Christophers’s crescendos, so appealing to the post-Beethoven, post-Wagner ear.

But if the goal was more to throw a swell party in 2014 than to do a musicological excavation, then Christophers’s lively, “historically informed” interpretation of the Constitution seemed just about right.

The program’s second half opened with another of Handel’s coronation anthems, The King Shall Rejoice, which threw fewer thunderbolts than Zadok, but delighted with its interplay of textures, choral and orchestral, rough and smooth.

The closing fugue had so many different inflections going simultaneously that it would seem to need about four conductors; but with a little help from his well-drilled singers, Christophers managed handily.

Lately, Handel and Haydn has adopted a strategy of getting listeners in the door with the 18th-century hits, then adding works they might not have sought out on their own.  Accordingly, this program of favorites included one exotic item, Stevenson’s They played, in air the trembling music floats, performed a capella by the men of the chorus.

The song had been performed at Handel and Haydn’s first concert in 1815.  One imagines that, then as on Friday, its gentle evocation of music and “list’ning angels” was an island of poetic reflection in a sea of brilliance and grandeur.

No celebration of Handel and Haydn in its current incarnation would be complete without a star turn for the orchestra’s leader, Aisslinn Nosky.  Since coming on board three years ago, the charismatic violinist has become an audience favorite not just for her imaginative interpretations and scorching technique, but for sartorial distinction and a physicality onstage that Mick Jagger might admire.

Standing in the center of the band, but with room to prowl and swoop to the music, Nosky led and soloed in a performance of Vivaldi’s “Summer” that turned the work’s ostensible three movements into a single tone poem that vividly evoked the season’s enervating heat, annoying insects, and sudden showers, while building steadily to a hair-raising final tempest that brought the audience to its feet at the end.

Nosky was called back to the stage several times, and could not escape another long round of applause when she tried to slip discreetly into her orchestra spot for the next piece.

Another necessary item for this night was music from the work most closely associated with this ensemble, Handel’s Messiah.  The chorus brought its most lush and luminous sound to “Worthy is the Lamb,” and the fugal “Amen” unrolled like a colorful, ornate carpet.  Even the chorus’s clearly articulated fast runs, so brilliant all evening, had a certain weight to them here.

Then the hall’s projection screen came down, and Christophers exhorted the audience to stand and sing “Hallelujah!” with the band, while the words displayed overhead.  They obliged lustily; quite a few audience members appeared to know not just the tune from memory, but their own vocal parts.  The concert ended in a giddy fortissimo of mutual applause.

As maestro Nelsons learned with last week’s BSO performances, the high of a thrilling launch isn’t easy to follow.  But you have to believe in the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston.  They’ve had 200 years to get it right.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday. handelandhaydn.org.

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