After the shock of losing visionary founder Craig Smith in 2007, Emmanuel Music eyed its future with commendable restraint and, after a good think, placed the shaping of its course in the hands of another thinking man’s choral conductor, Ryan Turner. Emmanuel’s and Turner’s proclamation of the era to come (this is not an inflated expression of their seriousness of intent) began this past Friday evening, September 24th, with a simply lovely performance of George Friedrich Handel’s ode of early 1736, Alexander’s Feast. Familiar figures from earlier Bach, Schubert, and other cycles sang and played unstintingly, basing their tonal language on the customary Emmanuel fabric of modern instruments cum harpsichord, approached with proven, informed style.
The program got under way with Stravinsky’s caustic, feisty, and quite brief Fanfare for a New Theatre (1964) for two unaccompanied trumpets. Veteran trumpeters Paul Perfetti and Bruce Hall, who would not be heard from again for over an hour, shattered the humming quiet of the full church with spare cascades of seconds and sevenths, and then yielded the spotlight to Emmanuel Music’s new president, Kate Kush. She welcomed all and introduced the organization’s new music director in a very few words — long-of-wind board speechmakers, kindly take note!
Sizable Handel choral pieces begin with overtures, the one for Alexander’s Feast being both typical and charming. We immediately had a good idea of Ryan Turner’s sure, communicative style at the helm, which made use of finely chosen tempi, sensible bowings, deft relative weighting of orchestral sections, and thoroughly enjoyable attacca bridges to project a clear sense of pace and a greater architecture. The central event, though more alluded to than specifically sketched, is conquering Alexander’s torching of “the most beautiful city in the world”, defeated Darius’s Persepolis, at the mad urging of his daughter, Thais. Vocal soli — accompagnati, in recitativo, and in arias or duos — succeeded one another, telling the classic tale of Alexander’s succumbing first to the temptress, then to her disturbed and destructive whim, and finally (this being a literary era detached from inconvenient realities) to the sweet, all-conqu’ring essence of the blessed muse, St. Cecilia. At signal thresholds, as in all such Handel works, the choir bursts forth in proclamation. What better formula could there be for enjoyment, success, and service of the original than John Dryden’s text of 1697? On his decades-long, businesslike way from Italian opera endeavors to the full-blown English oratorio, adoptive Londoner Handel suffused a breathtaking number of musical forms with his living breath of brilliant melody and deeply touching writing for strings and obligati. No finer example of the composer’s fascinating musical peregrination has persisted in concert than Alexander’s Feast. Called an ode, it is essentially an oratorio with a trim anatomy.
Ryan Turner’s supple, even liquid shaping of phrase was the most remarkable part of the evening. Superb singing by bass Dana Whiteside, soprano Kendra Colton, peripatetically busy tenor Jason McStoots, and bass Donald Wilkinson stood out as much through Mr. Turner’s molding as through these singers’ always delightful talents. Cellist Rafael Popper-Keiser is incapable of playing without fervor, spot-on intonation, and a heavenly projection of the affect his solos and occasional continuo highlights bring to the fore. He is among Boston’s distinguished instrumentalists, and for good reason. Vividly rhetorical harpsichordist Michael Beattie, sometimes audible through the familiarly muzzy Emmanuel acoustic, always brought off his continuo and obligato statements with panache and sparkle. As Donald Teeters quipped in his entertaining pre-concert lecture, Handel is prone to dotting beautiful obligato writing among his scores, requiring pairs of winds to sit for eons through the production, deliver their exquisite sunbursts in a single movement, and resubmerge. The rich horn parts and the paired trumpet writing were marvelous — and so was the playing.
Donald Teeters declared that “authentic” is a terrible word in music. He cited the almost unguided ease with which the instruments of Handel’s day balance within an ensemble, with and without voices, but he cannily dodged the small matter of Emmanuel’s four decades of success with modern instrumentation. A thrust of his illuminating, entertaining comments was that Handel’s intrinsic mastery of the score assures that the minor figurations and structures of each movement add up to a terrific vehicle for the all-important text, and that this particular ode, graciously included by most Handelians under the broader wings of the big oratorios that preceded and followed it, is a stellar example of the format.
In Ryan Turner’s debut performance for Emanuel Music, we were never left in doubt of the overarching shape and great beauty of Alexander’s Feast. His impeccable technique in leading the band and singers, and in communicating clearly with soli, came in part out of unequivocal starts for all, with brief, clear advance telegraphing of the pace and a truly refreshing communication of the intimacy of his concept of ensemble playing. Mr. Turner moves vigorously and tosses out straightforward emotional cues when the affect requires these, but the comfort of singers and players, at least in this performance, obviously came from detailed and ample rehearsal among musicians sharing a common musical language. As I mentioned earlier, Mr. Turner’s preferred attacca transitions, never edging toward the abrupt, maintain energy and focus well. This deeply enjoyable Alexander’s Feast augurs well for Boston, as it does for Emmanuel Music.
Alas, I must close in saying that Emmanuel Church’s stuffy, tired air must be original to the building, or perhaps to the time of the post-fire renovations. This historic Anglican congregation and its ecumenical colleague groups are no doubt accustomed to the unchanging fug in the sanctuary. But over the many years of Emmanuel, the Boston Early Music Festival, and other major city music events, audiences have sweltered and perspiringly endured. This is not a call for noisy, costly air conditioning, please note, but for regular, no-cost ventilation to take daily advantage of the cooler night air. It’s just outside, sealed out.