Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society opened its bicentennial season with a program of crowd-pleasers Friday night at Symphony Hall. It was odd, given the historical significance of the occasion, that only one of the organization’s titular composers was represented. But the evening was evidently meant to showcase its chorus and string players in a program chiefly of late-Baroque favorites by Handel, Bach, and Vivaldi.
The nearly full house greeted each offering enthusiastically, above all an athletic performance of the “Summer” concerto from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons that propelled most of those present to their feet. The audience got to applaud themselves at the end of the concert, which closed with the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah. This was done as a sing-along, the words flashed as supertitles on a screen above the stage. Several tenors and basses in my section of the audience were particularly strong, singing their parts from memory. In so doing they demonstrated to what degree experienced choral singers still make up the audience for H & H, founded in 1815 as a choral society on European models such as the Berlin Sing-Akademie.
Preceded by a generously catered reception for donors, and with free cupcakes for all provided during the intermission, the program itself was interspersed with remarks by various speakers, including H & H’s executive director Marie-Hélène Bernard, artistic director and conductor Harry Christophers, and concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky. To demonstrate the organization’s commitment to education and the community, the professionals were joined onstage in several numbers by the students of the Young Women’s Chamber Choir and the Young Men’s Chorus.
The concert opened with the toccata from Monteverdi’s Orfeo, performed by trumpets high in the second balcony accompanied by somewhat unorthdox drum and timpani playing onstage (Monteverdi himself did not write any percussion parts). This introduced the first of Handel’s four Coronation Anthems, Zadok the Priest, which was done smashingly—although the work can hardly fail to make a grand effect with a chorus of 40 brilliant soloists and an orchestra of some 30 equally brilliant players. The latter nevertheless seemed at times almost overwhelmed by the voices, at least from my vantage point.
These same forces, minus the winds, were less congenial in Bach’s motet Singet dem Herren, a work composed for eight voices and perhaps ten instruments. It would be understandable, given its traditions, if H & H never acceded to what is now the prevailing view among music historians that the great majority of Baroque choral works, including most of Bach’s, were written for much smaller forces than those heard last night. Yet, as with human-induced climate change, there are consequences for ignoring demonstrable facts. In this case, the relatively benign result is that H & H is no longer an “early music” organization as that expression is generally understood. It is simply a very successful, if slightly stodgy, pillar of its community, as indeed it has been for most of its long history.
There is nevertheless something thrilling about hearing a Bach motet performed as cleanly and energetically as we did last night, even if the result resembled an orchestral arrangement of a string quartet. Christophers has melded both chorus and orchestra into a seamless machine whose sound is probably more technically assured than at any time in the recent past. In Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, which followed, he demonstrated much the same approach in a purely instrumental work, giving it almost Verdiesque long, legato lines, quite remote from the more articulate or rhetorical approach cultivated by many so-called period ensembles. This did not preclude the electrifying effect of prefacing the overture with a drum-roll, a trick I first heard in Philippe Herreweghe’s 1993 recording of Lully’s Armide—although the idea grew rather tiresome on its third or fourth repetition in later movements. Still, it was a nice touch to place the competing trumpets and horns on opposite sides of the stage, so that their alternating entries produced a stereo effect (the horns won, demonstrating a significantly higher batting average).
The second half opened with Handel’s third Coronation Anthem, The King Shall Rejoice, followed by a welcome curiosity: John Stevenson’s “They Played, in Air the Trembling Music Floats.” Sung, according to Teresa Neff’s program note, on H & H’s first concert in 1815, this little motet for men’s chorus and organ was a pleasing exercise in post-Handelian style. Seemingly unaffected by anything that had been composed in Vienna during the previous few decades, it reflected the late-18th-century English taste for glees with slightly preposterous quasi- or pseudo-classical texts. The evening’s only novelty, it received what seemed to me the only truly heartfelt applause—as opposed to the cheering that greeted the old favorites that made up the rest of the program.
Among those were the following works, Vivaldi’s “Summer,” performed ably by Nosky, and the closing choral sequence from Messiah. As in the Bach motet, one could not fail to be impressed by the technical achievement in the Vivaldi, even if this performance seemed intended above all to outdo others in both speed and the calculated perversity of certain solo passages, as when Vivaldi depicts various birds and then the “lament of the peasant” (oddly played without any audible basso continuo, just the bare solo violin and cello). This was another anachronistically high-powered performance; concertos such as this were conceived as chamber music for smaller forces. But the H & H strings conclusively demonstrated here that they don’t need a histrionic conductor to perform with flawless precision; Nosky could lead the ensemble with equally eye-catching gestures.
Was I the only one to sense any incongruity as this display of virtuosity gave way to what was meant to celebrate the central tenet of Christianity (“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain”)? Both the Vivaldi and the final Handel selections received a reception more fitting for a last-inning grand slam. This must bode well for H & H’s ongoing fundraising campaign, which was marketed unashamedly throughout the evening. Yet I wonder whether H & H will ever again be the innovative, cutting-edge musical force that it was within recent memory. Although its players use what still pass for period instruments, performances such as this one are not “historically informed,” and this season’s upcoming programs reveal nothing innovative. In a bicentennial year that coincides with the tercentenaries of two major composers, Gluck and C. P. E. Bach, H & H is offering no significant music by either, instead focusing on war horses.
On the other hand, with a virtuoso conductor leading 60 or 70 musicians, H & H has in some ways returned to its 19th-century origins, albeit without the Victorian-era’s expressivity. Though the band includes violins equipped with gut strings, so-called natural brass instruments, and woodwinds made of real wood, its current performance approach would actually be more historically appropriate for Brahms than for Bach and Handel, if only there were also some genuinely Romantic dynamic shaping of lines and expressive flexibility of tempi.
Perhaps we will hear something like that when H & H presents Mendelssohn’s Elijah this spring. Those attending the reception got a preview of the latter when Alyson Greer led the Young Women’s Chamber Chorus in “Lift mine eyes” from Mendelssohn’s oratorio, inducing one listener to observe audibly (and rightly) that this was done “very sweetly.” Genuinely Romantic performances of Romantic music are now more rare than historically informed Baroque or Classical ones. Is it time for H & H leave the latter to specialist organizations that are more committed to creative “period” performance?