Peter Harrison’s squat, granite pile from 1749 in the heart of modern downtown Boston seems to breed culture. Wander in the King’s Chapel burial ground, and you can see an ornate letter “A” carved on the gravestone that inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne. Climb up the belfry, and there are bells cast by none other than Paul Revere. In the nave, numerous monuments commemorate prominent citizens from Boston and Massachusetts including the pew for the governor, as well as the pew in which George Washington sat. Wander up to the choir balcony, and Daniel Pinkham’s name is gilded onto the C B Fisk organ—an instrument which he inspired and then played for 42 years. Add to this list the Handel and Haydn Society, which celebrated its 200th anniversary at the chapel this past Saturday evening. One of the oldest musical organizations in the United States, H+H began in this very place on Christmas Day of 1815 when a chorus of 90 men (mainly tradesmen) and 10 women from local churches, gathered in King’s Chapel to sing motets and anthems accompanied by a small amateur instrumental ensemble and an organ. One can only imagine the crowded pews that Christmas, as nearly 1000 people (roughly 1/25th of Boston’s total population at the time) crowded into the space.
Saturday evening’s concert saw a full King’s Chapel, including formally dressed members of the H+H board. Harry Christophers led a fleet professional chorus of 26, accompanied by cellist Guy Fishman and organist Ian Watson. The slender program of anthems and choruses inspired by the Christmas 1815 performance opened with a processional, Veni creator spiritus, followed by William Byrd’s setting of Psalm 150, Laudibus in sanctis. The meat of the program began with Handel’s Coronation Anthem No. 3 (“The King shall rejoice”), continuing on to four eighteenth-century works from the “Old Colony Collection” compiled in 1823. These rarely-performed pieces were perhaps the most interesting of the evening, if not musically, then for their insight into the colonial Boston tastes. Saturday’s performance included two English composers (James Kent, “Hear my prayer, O God”, and Thomas Linley “Bow down Thine ear, O Lord”) mixed with the setting of a Russian Air “Hark! The Vesper hymn is stealing”, and a re-setting of the melody of Mozart’s “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” from Magic Flute to the text of “Almighty God! When round thy shrine”. The concert concluded with “Heavens are telling” from Haydn’s Creation, and the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah.
The polished sounding choir of H&H prioritized sensitivity to the sonic architecture. In the opening plainsong, exposed but well-blended vocal lines were came satisfyingly to fruition. Byrd’s Laudibus disclosed marked sectional independence that expertly combined with a particular focus on the inner voices. Though perhaps muddied in Handel’s Coronation Anthem, this delicate polyphony produced a marvelous wall of sound that matched the work’s pomp, even as Christophers’s rich soundscape lent unique characters to individual divisions. This approach was particularly effective when applied to Kent’s “Hear my prayer” or Linley’s “Bow down Thine ear”; neither was replete with the dramatic extremes of Handel, but both sounded, vividly colored under Christophers. Fittingly, the concert concluded with two works the ensemble had premiered in America during the early 19th century: “The Heavens are telling” passed with a rousing tempo and exciting precision, and audience members were invited to join a confident, thrilling performance of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah
The many fine soloists drawn from the chorus. included soprano Margot Rood, who duetted with Emily Marvosh in Kent’s “Hear my prayer.” Margaret Rood’s well-shaped, confident soprano provided lively contrast to Emily Marvosh’s darker contralto. Rood returned with soprano Sonja DuToit Tengblad in Linley’s “Bow down Thine ear”—an extended anthem, almost cantata Tengblad’s crisp, flexible soprano played nicely off of Roods more reserved sound here. “Heavens are telling” from Haydn’s Creation featured Rood with tenor Stefan Reed and bass Woodrow Bynum. The three formed an intimate, engrossing small ensemble in which Bynum’s resonant bass provided a strong foundation. Tenor Jonas Budris and David McFerrin joined Tengblad and Marvosh in the re-setting of Mozart’s area “Almighty God! When round thy shrine”.
The reprises from some of H&H’s original repertoire showed how considerably the society has outgrown its humble beginnings as an amateur group in this stone chapel.