in: Reviews

March 4, 2017

H+H and Youngsters Now and Then

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The Handel + Haydn Society had two guest conductors last Friday. For 30 years, H+H has engaged in notable community outreach, working with local high school choruses to bring them to Symphony Hall to perform with the H+H orchestra. It is not unusual for a world-class ensemble to bring musicians to schools, but to allow nonprofessional young people to perform in such a location and at such a level is a gift whose value can be very high. Having grown up in the Atlanta area, with a first-rate youth orchestra, I realized only years later what an influence it had been to play on the same stage as the ASO every Saturday morning, with members of the Symphony, and even on a few occasions to be conducted by Music Director Robert Shaw. What lies ahead for many of these young musicians is the memory of a lifetime, and possibly much more.

Directed by Andrew Clark, the Collaborative Youth Concert Choruses, representing singers from schools in Boston, Brockton, Lawrence, Lynn, and Kingston (Silver Lake) sang Purcell’s “Come, Ye Sons of Art”. It was as in tune, balanced, and nuanced a performance as many a professional chorus. All the participants can rightly be proud of their accomplishments, and soloists Jacquelyn Stucker, soprano, Emily Harmon, mezzo (lovely in the opening lines), Christian Figueroa, tenor, and Bradford Gleim, baritone, were spot on.

The next piece brought the star of the evening to the podium. Guest conductor Nicholas McGegan, according to his bio, is “an expert in 18th–century style” (The New Yorker). He lived up to that reputation. Now in his 32nd year as the music director of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in San Francisco, he has conducted all over the world and received numerous awards, including an OBE from his native Great Britain. McGegan is not didactic, and he not so much directs as orchestrates  in the manner of a sound painter. He encourages, embodying the shape of phrases, almost dancing the music into existence, and the musicians one and all responded with a sparkling energy and joy.

Mozart wrote his Linz Symphony, K.425 in a matter of days during a three-week visit to an old family friend. Since he had not brought a symphony with him, and a concert was planned, Mozart composed “one as quickly as possible,” he wrote to his father.  Despite the haste, there is no sloppiness in form, harmony, or thematic material. Instead, it is a beautiful work informed by some of Mozart’s signature gestures: a long melody with rhythmic underpinnings, running scales which seem to float at the top, almost operatic dialogue among groups of instruments, and a humorous trio in the Menuetto that had a landlery feel. The musicians looked as though they were having a very good time.

After intermission, McGegan addressed the audience about music from the ballet Don Juan by Gluck and Arriaga’s Symphony in D Major. He mentioned that one of the movements of the upcoming ballet might seem familiar, as Mozart had copied it as background for a scene in the Marriage of Figaro. He also pointed out the period trombone, which he described as a “regular trombone that has been through the wash”. Overall, the music from the ballet is quite different from the dread and impending doom of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. This Don Juan was having a pretty jolly time of it, in a major key for much of the work. There was a lot of impressive orchestral unison, as though the whole ensemble were one big multi-octave instrument. Moments which stood out included the beautiful oboe solo by Debra Nagy in No. 2 Andante accompanied by pizzicato strings and the most subtle pianissimo triangle playing by Jonathan Hess. I did not realize it was possible to play that instrument with such delicacy, adding just a silvery echo to the beats. Outstanding! In one of the movements the pizzicato strings sounded very much like a guitar, perhaps influencing Mozart’s Dei Vieni alla finestra. The final movement was the longest, and the point in the story where Don Juan gets his comeuppance. There were fury and flames from the strings, pleading from the horns and the menacing trombone, and terror from a thunder sheet. Being a period thunder sheet, it did at times sound like what happens in my kitchen when the baking pans fall out of the closet, but in a Baroque theater without Dolby surround sound and modern special effects, it must have been quite the novelty. McGegan stirred the whole ensemble to a double-forte frenzy, which slowly faded as Don Juan descended and disappeared from view, in as clear a musical depiction of damnation as could be imagined, and extremely effective.

Nicholas McGegan conducts H + H (Kat Waterman photo)

Arriaga’s Symphony in D major. Arriaga was known as the Spanish Mozart; in addition to sharing the same Saint’s name, they were born on the same day, 50 years apart. They also shared precocious musicality, but Arriaga’s was cut tragically short by his death at 19. According to McGegan, this performance may very well have been the first complete one on period instruments, as the score and parts were left a mess, with more than the usual amount of copying and other errors. The horn parts were reconstructed (the originals were in the wrong key, as were the clarinet parts). It is a symphony which deserves wider hearing, being solidly constructed with very interesting themes. The third movement Menuetto: allegro pushes the form with hemiolas and a most engaging two against three in the trio. The last movement features a pleading minor theme and downward slip in harmony. It shows more than enough substance to reward further hearings. At the end, conductor and orchestra received a heartily deserved ovation. When McGegan is back in the neighborhood, do not miss him.

Elisa Birdseye, executive director of the Boston Chamber Ensemble, is an active freelance violist and principal violist of the New Bedford Symphony. Additionally, she has worked as the general manager of the New England Philharmonic and Boston Musica Viva.

3 Comments

  1. I have been an enthusiastic Arriaga fan for decades. If he is unknown to some readers of BMInt, may I recommend his three string quartets, stunning and elegant, which he wrote when he was 16 years old. These are his masterpieces, and they are wonders. His early death (at 19) was a great loss. There is a biography by Barbara Rosen, and there are several good recordings of his quartets on CD. Much of what he wrote is now lost, including an admired opera, a fugue for eight voices which Cherubini called “a masterpiece,” and other vocal and instrumental works. I feel a great sadness whenever I think of his loss. Please do listen to the three quartets.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — March 4, 2017 at 11:03 pm

  2. >> What lies ahead for many of these young musicians is the memory of a lifetime

    I cannot disagree. 52y ago I spent a long taxing day as part of a choral group drawn from numerous Cleveland-area high schools, led by Shaw to learn and perform selections from the B-Minor Mass.
    Gather at 8:30a, learn till lunch, then rehearse, review later in the afternoon, and perform that evening. A tutorial quite distinct in my mind to this day. Shaw got sweat-soaked early and stayed that way through to dinnertime, rather alarming us teens. I learned that there was just a ton of detail and shapely nuance to be attended to in phrasing. As octet leader at my school I tried afterward never to approach Josquin or doowop or ‘Aura Lee’ the same.

    Comment by david moran — March 5, 2017 at 7:27 pm

  3. Thank you Alan Levitan for your praise of Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga. Approximately once a decade I successfully persuade whatever recreational quartet I happen to find myself in to give those three gems you mention a try. Arriaga’s music never fails to please and edify.

    Many years ago I was in Bilbao; not surprisingly there was a tiny museum that housed ephemera drawn from the composer’s lamentably short life; a few scores, the diploma from the Paris Conservatoire, and even (strange to relate) a lock of the prodigy’s hair. It appears (I hope someone can tell me that I am wrong) that the museum is no longer in operation. Rather than mourn this sad state of affairs, wouldn’t it be more constructive to keep the three Arriaga string quartets readily available on the shelf? My suggestion is to lodge them securely between the opus 76s and the opus 18s.

    They deserve to be the there.

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — March 5, 2017 at 11:18 pm

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