Now beginning his fourth year as Music Director of the Handel & Haydn Society, Harry Christophers has made it known in town that he is an exemplary musician who combines panache and style with a vision of programming which can speak to aficionados as well as those who may need some coaxing to enter Symphony Hall. If classical music is in trouble, this kind of programming should definitely help turn things around.
H&H opened its 198th (!) season on Friday evening with an all-Bach program which could not have been more convincing. Symphony Hall was nearly sold out, and we were in for a splendid evening of the great Master’s music.
Bach had to have been smiling as the music began with the Orchestral Suite #3 in D. Tempos were brisk, but not in the least glib or inappropriate; textures were transparent and radiant. From the first downbeat to conclusion of the program, every gesture seemed destined to let the music speak for itself. The famous “Air on the G string,” the second movement of this Suite, was given a tempo and shading which made listening to it feel as if an old friend had stopped by for a lovely visit. The trumpeters, using valve-less, slider-controlled Baroque instruments (notoriously difficult to play), rang out at the top of the ensemble with a sound which gave just the right sheen to the livelier movements.
Cantata No. 71 Gott ist mein König (God is My King), written for the inauguration of the Muhlhausen (Germany) Town Council, was for me a fascinating discovery. Accustomed to writing for church, Bach must have enjoyed creating music for a more secular occasion. In the first movement, a vocal quartet (sung here with four well-matched voices) contrasts with chorus and orchestra. Everyone needed to negotiate striking changes in tempo, dynamics and color, and Christophers repeatedly had them all turning on a dime. Bach seems to have had his tongue-in-cheek with the ends of each of the outer movements, which finish suddenly and quietly after all the joyful noise which has intervened. Ian Watson’s continuo organ playing here, and throughout the evening, was especially fine.
Emily Marvosh’s coloratura alto melded beautifully with the trumpets and organ in the fifth movement aria, a plea for peace. The chorus “Du wollest dem Feinde” (mayest thou to the foe not deliver) sounded—dare I say it–“Brahmsian” in the most curious way, and the choir sang ethereally through the captivating texture of this movement.
After intermission, the Sinfonia from Cantata No. 18 led off with elegant simplicity, played on instruments other than the violins. Each section began with a fugue-like melody characterized by a series of fifths. Just when one might think Bach is predictable, that illusion is dispelled in this sort of piece, as we hear his genius expressed in such clear, cogent, unusual and compelling gestures. Another discovery! Next was “Jesu bleibet meine Freude,” the famous chorus known as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” from Cantata No. 147 (in which this famous music appears twice during the course of the work). Here was another old friend, charming us with a familiar and heartwarming quality. Concluding this unlikely but effective group of three pieces was the Sinfonia to Cantata No. 75, which near its conclusion, highlights the choral “Was Gott tut das ist wohlgetan” (What God Ordains is Always Good). Paul Perfetti’s flawless playing of that tune on the challenging slider trumpet was made even more memorable by his astounding breath control, holding for what seemed like an eternity at the end while the orchestra finished embellishing the final chord. Amazing!
The Magnificat in D Major brought the program to a close. The orchestral playing continued on its high level, and the opening and several other choruses stood out for their brilliance and persuasiveness: “Omnes generationes” (all generations), taken at a daring tempo, was a stunning foil to soprano Teresa Wakim’s crystalline singing and Stephen Hammer’s pellucid oboe playing in “Quia respexit” (for he hath regarded…) Jacob Cooper brought a richness and clarity to “Quia fecit” (for he that is mighty). Catherine Hedberg, alto and Jonas Budris, tenor blended perfectly in “Et misericordia” (and his mercy is on them), reveling in the poignancy of this movement. The chorus “Fecit potentiam” (he hath shown strength, and he hath scattered the proud) was taken at a another breakneck tempo. The women of the chorus, again reflecting on God’s mercy “Suscepit Israel puerum” (he hath filled the hungry with good things), captured meltingly the depth of beauty of this music. Solo highlight of the evening was alto Emily Marvosh’s aria “Esurientes implevit bonis” (he hath filled the hungry with good things): Marvosh gently, thoughtfully walked from the chorus around to the front to sing next to Christophers, seeming as she approached to be almost in a dream, and as her lovely, luminous voice, combined with two baroque flutes (effortlessly played by Christopher Krueger and Andrea LeBlanc), floated diaphanously through the hall, not a soul stirred. It was clear that the conductor and orchestra were at one with the singer for every moment. This aria melded sumptuously into the beautifully-sung women’s chorus, “Suscepit Israel” (He remembering his mercy), then to “Sicut locutus est” (As he promised to our forefathers) where the men of the chorus join in again. The organ alone once more accompanied this chorus, and it worked. The final chorus (never long enough, it seems) brought everything to a joyous close.
The Handel & Haydn Society is in an anacrusis to its 200th anniversary, and if this elegant program is any indication, the city is in for a grand celebration in 2014. Last night, Bach, and those of us in the audience were the lucky recipients of the great gifts doled out by this glorious band, who should be a source of pride to our great city.