in: Reviews

October 11, 2014

H&H Begins 200th Season

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Carl Zerrahn conduced H and H from 1854-1895.

Carl Zerrahn conduced H & H from 1854 to 1895.

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?

David Schulenberg’s book The Music of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach will be published later this year by the University of Rochester Press. He has also written books on the music of W. F. Bach and the keyboard music of J. S. Bach, as well as the textbook Music of the Baroque. A performer on harpsichord, clavichord, and fortepiano, he teaches at Wagner College and at The Juilliard School, both in New York City; his website is here.

12 Comments

  1. Perhaps the augmented forces for the Bach are justified by the size of Symphony hall. Nevertheless, the overall suggestion that the H&H has abandoned historically informed performance for contemporary tastes, while startling, seems to be worth considering.

    Any musical performance group must, of course, seek to put seats in the seats, and perhaps Symphony Hall is too large a venue if one wants audiences seeking truly authentic period performances. One must attract a wider audience, even if it means compromise.

    This leads to a consideration of the newly announced capital campaign. In the program booklet, the campaign is described as, inter alia, “creating … new audiences for Baroque and Classical music,” and later they say that it will “build strong and diverse audiences.” The graying of the audience has been a concern for at least the past 50 years in my own memory. Yet the young people of 50 years ago are now the grizzled and blue-haired audiences of today.* How is this possible? Without massive efforts to lure us in to Symphony Hall, we miraculously discovered “Baroque and Classical music!” In other words, I think the problem of the aging audience is an imagined one. People come across classical music. Those who like it begin attending concerts when they have the free time and the disposable income to do so. In fact, I have been very impressed in recent years, by the large number of young concert-goers, both at H&H and at BSO.

    And now I’ll grouse even more widely. I wonder why all this community outreach and education has suddenly (as it seems to me) become such an important part of our musical organizations’ activity. Isn’t it enough for them to put on concerts? Isn’t that their purpose? Is this a way of keeping the musicians busy, in order to let them earn their salaries? Are they afraid they’ll lose their tax exemption unless they do the outreach and education, as if giving concerts were a frivolous activity with no public benefit? Will nobody want to play in their orchestras or sing in their choruses 25 years hence if they don’t make this massive effort?

    If you play and sing it, they will come.

    I’ll continue to attend H&H concerts, at least for now, because I do enjoy what I hear, for the most part (even though I’m getting royally tired of Aisleen Nosky’s calling attention to herself), but I’d be very interested to hear from Mr. Schulenberg or others what organizations in the area perform baroque music authentically.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — October 12, 2014 at 8:24 pm

  2. My question for H and H management is why is it playing the 200th anniversary so safe. Where is the major commission such as was set on Randall Thompson for the 150th? Why no Amy Beach or John Knowles Paine or Dudley Buck-or Lowell Mason, one of the founders, for that matter. And why no Ebeneezer Prout arrangement of Messiah with large forces to commemorate a long-time staple? Why no revival of historically uninformed anachronistic performances that were so popular in the not-so distant past. Management should have risked one potpourri event to showcase the evolution of their brand. All of that said, H&H fills an essential niche.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — October 12, 2014 at 11:10 pm

  3. Ah yes, the old ‘authenticity’ chestnut rears its gnarled head once again. Interesting to note how, to quote one example of many, a world-famous period specialist, John Eliot Gardiner, has never given an ‘authentic’ performance of any baroque work. A choir of 40 for the Monteverdi Vespers? Mr Schulenberg would have to take some smelling salts. The entire Bach Cantata Pilgrimage – not one with single voices or instruments – Mr S’s head must be reeling. How is it possible to give riveting and celebrated performances worlwide? What’s wrong with the world the that they dont see it from the same perspective as our trusty reviewer? Go figure.

    Comment by philip johnson — October 13, 2014 at 9:39 am

  4. The esteemed publisher of the BMINT and others have recently taken to enthusiastic calls for the revival of the anachronistic performance practices of the past, full of nostalgia for the excesses, distortions, and brutal dismemberings of the days of Stokowski and the like. Lee seems to be calling not merely for ignoring the claims of authenticity, but actively seeking to re-create its opposite. Perhaps he can head the vanguard of a new movement for Historically Informed Travesty. They could do reproductions of Karajan’s Four Seasons and Beecham’s Messiah, and perhaps hold a Stokowski festival.

    In the recent round-table discussion with the new BSO music director Lee lobbied for an anti-authentic, big-band production of the Saint Matthew Passion by the BSO, invoking Stowkowski and Mengleberg as good examples. (I thank him, however, for bringing to my attention the existence of a recording of Mengleberg’s production, which I listened to a few minutes of online. It was astonishing. It sounded like Puccini.) In this discussion Mark Volpe made the only sensible remark, suggesting mildly that experienced early-music practitioners had certain advantages in performing such a work. This moderation was immediately denounced.

    There is a good reason why a large modern symphony orchestra should regard performance of the Saint Matthew Passion with caution, or even trepidation, and it is not that it is the private property of early-music practitioners. It is that the Saint Matthew Passion is not an orchestral work. Neither is it a large-scale choral-orchestral work on the model of Berlioz’s Requiem or even the Missa Solemnis. It is a baroque chamber work framed by large choruses. The arias and accompanied recitatives that comprise the bulk of the work are largely of an intimate, inward nature. Bach reflects the dual nature of Protestant worship – the community of believers united in praise and entreaty, equal before God (though not of course before each other), and the solitary soul in unmediated direct conversation – in the dual sound-realms of the work. The arias and accompagnatos are usually for a single voice accompanied by a very small orchestra or an instrumental obbligato of one or two instruments, plus continuo. The instruments for these obbligatos are very carefully chosen by Bach, and they have a low, intimate sonority that does not exist in the instruments of the modern symphony orchestra, designed to make big bright sounds in large well-lit halls. In that incomparable ninety-second masterpiece of mystery and anguish, the recitative “Ach Golgotha”, the alto is accompanied by two oboes da caccia, the quiet pensiveness of which can never be duplicated by the cor anglais. And in the arias “Geduld, geduld” and “Komm, süßes Kreuz”, all the cellists of the BSO, or of any other orchestra, cannot compare to Laura Jeppesen on the viola da gamba.

    This is only one example. The question is not one of “authenticity” as immutable and incomprehensible ordinance of ancient provenance that cannot be questioned, but of the actual character and nature of the the works and the manner of performance that suits them best. The composer is not necessarily the final authority on this question – there is no final authority – but surely has a special insight. Of course the audience does not necessarily want what the composer wants, and makes its own demands. All of the aforementioned travesties were popular in their time, and can be considered as having their own virtues. A performance of the Saint Matthew Passion by a saxophone quartet backed up by an orchestra of a hundred electric guitars would no doubt have its virtues, and would be enthusiastically greeted by a certain audience. It would lack, however, the perfume of nostalgia for early-twentieth-century manners in which some would prefer to enfold this early-eighteenth-century work.

    Comment by SamW — October 13, 2014 at 11:25 am

  5. Ah, the Beecham/Goosens Messiah– yes!!!!

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — October 13, 2014 at 12:04 pm

  6. Surely some (SW?) read about this:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/09/arts/music/Berlin-Philharmonic-Park-Avenue-Armory-St-Matthew-Passion.html

    Comment by David Moran — October 13, 2014 at 1:49 pm

  7. Yes, I did. It is reviewed as if it was an opera and a theatrical spectacle, which no doubt it was, complete with Peter Sellars blowhardery. There is not even a mention of instrumental performance (except for “instrumental busyness”). I am sure it was exhilarating, and probably a wonderful experience for all who attended. Were there any electric guitars ? The review doesn’t say.

    Actually I suspect this not of the kind of early twentieth-century bombast and sentimentality that Lee seems to have been advocating, which I don’t think Rattle likely to go in for, but of a more modern, twenty-first century disease, the idea that intensity, or the appearance thereof, is the greatest virtue, to be pursued always and at any cost; the attitude that makes every contestant in a third-rate TV talent show sound like they were undergoing some form of horrible torture.

    Comment by SamW — October 13, 2014 at 3:29 pm

  8. The Passion of the Gibson

    Comment by David Moran — October 13, 2014 at 4:13 pm

  9. While David and the commenters make some valid observations, I feel the need to defend our enterprise a bit. One of Aristotle’s four virtues of good rhetoric is “decorum” in the sense of being appropriate to the occasion: last week’s concerts were designed to be an anniversary blowout celebrating all things H&H, and nobody can deny that we were successful in doing that. It also seems a bit curious that only performances that are larger than the original get criticized for being inauthentic these days — no one seems to worry that the Coronation Anthems were first performed with an orchestra of about 100, or the Fireworks Music with 26 oboes.

    for an alternate view of the Berlin/Sellars St Matthew see

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/proms/11079980/BBC-Prom-66-St-Matthew-Passion-review-verging-on-ludicrous.html

    a lot is in the eye of the beholder, no?

    Comment by Stephen Hammer — October 13, 2014 at 4:52 pm

  10. ‘course The Telegraph had mostly good things to say about the symphonic performance as opposed to the supposedly unfortunate staging.

    I saw a ballet of the Matthew Passion at Salzburg 30 years ago that likewise induced me to close my eyes- but no one is suggesting a staging of the Matthew for H and H or BSO….

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — October 13, 2014 at 5:50 pm

  11. I would just like to point out that H+H performed the same Bach last spring in the more intimate Jordan Hall with just a tiny continuo section accompanying the small chorus– and it was also a lovely performance.

    Comment by Sarah Freiberg — October 14, 2014 at 2:47 pm

  12. Did I mention how tired I am of this conversation? I have always had one foot firmly in the ‘period performance’ world and the other decidedly not; it will remain that way as long as either camp claims the upper hand. I have been moved by performances of Bach cantatas one on a part and St. Matthew Passions with a stage filled with passionate modern players and a chorus of 40. Drawing lines in the sand from either perspective is tiresome and boring. REALLY boring.

    Comment by Michael Beattie — October 15, 2014 at 9:51 pm

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