Last night in Symphony Hall the Handel and Haydn Society combined the Collaborative Youth Chorus, music for historical clarinet and Beethoven, Symphony No. 7, originally thought to celebrate the combined European forces conquering Napoleon. The program was framed by triumphs.
The concert began with excerpts from Handel’s Utrecht Te Deum. John Finney, Handel and Haydn Society Chorusmaster since 1990, conducted reduced orchestral forces and choruses from Boston Latin School, Brockton High School, and Lawrence High School. This opening of the program is part of the Karen S. and George D. Levy Educational Outreach Program’s Collaborative Youth Concerts, now in their 25th year. These concerts have profound educational impact, as Penny Knight (soon-to-retire Choral Director, Brockton High School) attested in her prefatory remarks: they bring classical music to students who think they don’t like it, and create future performers and audiences alike. So it was a pleasure to see these amateur singers gracing the stage of Symphony Hall amassed behind the professional instrumentalists. They sang “We praise thee, O God” and “O Lord, in Thee I have trusted” from Handel’s Utrecht Te Deum. I had not previously heard this piece, and I knew nothing of it. The program’s silence on this work is a deafening embarrassment. For those who might be curious, here is what my research has taught me: composed in 1712 – 1713, this work celebrates the Peace of Utrecht (which ended the War of Spanish Succession), and was first performed at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, on July, 7th 1713 (although a public rehearsal was held on 5 March 1713). The text follows the “Book of Common Prayer” and combines the Ambrosian Te Deum with Psalm 100. The composition is in ten sections, scored for SSATB chorus with six vocal soloists (now usually performed with four) and orchestra. We heard the first and last of this work’s ten movements (it would have been nice to know that), which felt like about five minutes of music out of this work’s total run time of some 27 minutes. It might also have been nice to comment on the tercentenary of this work somewhere in the program notes. It would have also helped to explain the presence of vocal soloists among the chorus. It might also have been nice had the soloists, like the choristers, memorized the music. When I ascend to the throne my regal-sounding name bequeathed me, I shall endeavor to ameliorate the world and its concerts so I no longer need write past contrafactual statements in concert reviews. As for this performance, I found it full of verve, polish, and passion—befitting this beautiful music. I regret we only heard a very few minutes of this work, and felt great pity for the students who were presented on this program as but a prelude to the following concert. Because of the strong performance of this music, I really must express my disappointment, dismay, and distress at how this work was presented in performance even as I applaud the chorus and orchestra for delivering such a satisfying reading of these too-brief excerpts.
After a slight pause to re-arrange the stage, the full orchestral complement of the Handel and Haydn Society took the stage under the direction of Richard Egarr, Music Director of the Academy of Ancient Music. We heard Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music, K. 477 (1785), which Egarr, in his prefatory remarks, called “miserable Masonic Mozart.” That phrase does capture the sadness inherent in this stately, funereal music. Egarr also introduced the basset-horn which figures in this score; imagine a knick-bass recorder with a resonator box and a trumpet bell affixed to the bottom—an acquired taste. The music is in three inter-connected parts (dirge, chorale, and coda) and lasts for some six minutes. The anguish was palpable and while the music retains the hallmark harmonic clarity of Mozart, the overall character is very different from much else of his work. I found this a sensitive and nuanced reading of the work.
Continuing with music of Mozart, principal clarinetist Eric Hoeprich stepped out for that composer’s Clarinet Concerto in A, K. 622 (1791). This performance is a reconstruction of that concerto for basset clarinet, based on a surviving compositional sketch in Mozart’s hand and a detailed review of a performance by Anton Stadler on this instrument. Hoeprich relied on a concert program discovered in Riga from one of Stadler’s performances in 1794, which included an engraving of his basset clarinet; relying on this engraving Hoeprich built his own basset clarinet, which he played in this concert. Made of boxwood, with a curved barrel at the top and a bulbous bell at right angles to the barrel at the bottom, this basset clarinet plays four semi-tones lower than the typical five-key Viennese clarinets of the period; Mozart made use of this lower register throughout the concerto. The instrument has a subtler, rounder sound than a modern clarinet; the mellow tone brought a wonderful sweetness and tenderness to the middle Adagio movement of this concerto, making the opening theme into a touching lullaby. In both the opening Allegro and the finale Rondo: Allegro, Mozart laid down a series of technical challenges for the soloist. Hoeprich made light of these, although I found he could not counter the balance issues in Symphony Hall posed by the quieter sound of the basset clarinet, making it difficult to pick out his line from the orchestra. Given the more directional bell of the basset clarinet, perhaps those seated more centrally in the hall did not have this problem. I did discuss the performance with friends during the intermission, who were struck by Hoeprich’s not performing from memory. While I am sympathetic to the challenges of memorizing music for performance (especially in a case such as this where it is a reconstruction of a familiar work), I share their sense that it did limit his interaction with the orchestra. Pity; the intense focus among the musicians and across sections is one of the real strengths of the Handel and Haydn Society as an ensemble.
Following intermission, Egarr and the orchestra returned for Beethoven, Symphony No. 7 in A, op. 92 (composed 1812; first performed 1813). As Teresa Neff’s program note explains, because of the triumphant character of the music and the context of the full program at this symphony’s first performance, “Viennese audiences thought of the Seventh Symphony as a composition about the defeat of Napoleon.” She goes on to quote Wagner’s description of this work as “the ‘apotheosis of the dance.’” By turns stately, courtly, exuberant, restrained, and wild, the symphony does dance; this performance captured the moves of Beethoven’s music with joy and delight. Egarr brought a fine sense of pacing and scope to this performance, coupled with a responsive, and visibly thrilled, ensemble of musicians. The opening Poco sostenuto – Vivace was marked by excitement. The second movement Allegretto opened in a subdued, mournful vein, moving to a powerful statement of minor-keyed pathos before lightening the mood with skittering violin filigree. The fugato in this movement was performed with a wonderful tightness, remarkable even from the section’s opening pianissimo. The third movement Presto was a flying Scherzo full of dynamic variation and a compendium of articulations, giving a depth to the added repeat of minuet and trio in this section that is often lost in performance. The finale, Allegro con brio, was a glorious, unbridled, frolicking race to the finish. Throughout the orchestra responded to Egarr’s direction; I did notice, somewhat atypically and throughout the symphony, his gesture to quiet the first violins, and they responded. That said, though, the strings throughout this performance were clear, vibrant, and thoroughly excited to be playing this music. The winds gave a strong performance; the brass however, and the horns especially, seemed off. I hope the repeat performance Sunday afternoon at 3pm is a better outing for them.