in: Reviews

December 16, 2017

From Annunciation to Nativity

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In the Handel and Haydn Society’s delightful potpourri, “A Bach Christmas,” Martin Roth (ca. 1580-1610) and Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704) made surprise appearances, adding to the richness of textures and colors of the instrumental and vocal music with which they impressed us at Jordan Hall.

According to BMint’s Sudeep Agarwalla, “One of the oldest musical organizations in the United States, H+H began 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. H+H’s chorus had reached a peak of 700 amateurs for an extravaganza in the mid-19th century before settling into a groove of 100+ enthusiasts. Goaded by extremely negative reviews from the Boston Globe’s Michael Steinberg, the H+H board, n 1967, engaged Thomas Dunn to transform the organization into lithe, historically informed contingent of generally under 30 professionals. On Thursday evening, the stage held nine singers doubling as impressive soloists along with eight players. 

I was touched by the concert’s opening with a treble chorus of 29 youngsters from the Vocal Arts Program Concert Choir conducted by Jennifer Kane, singing J.S. Bach’s “Mein Freund ist mein” from Cantata 140. Very sweet. J.S. Bach has been credited with preserving and performing the cantatas of his second cousin, Johann Ludwig Bach (1677-1731), here represented by his “Uns ist ein Kind geboren,” a German motet for double chorus. The master, Johann Sebastian was featured in two cantatas, beginning with Cantata 147, “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben” with five superb soloists—Maggie Finnegan, soprano (replacing Sonja Du Toit Tengblad); Doug Dodson, countertenor; Emily Marvosh, contralto; Brian Giebler, tenor; and Peter Walker, baritone (replacing David McFerrin). I particularly relished Doug Dodson’s “Schäme dich, o Seele nicht,” accompanied by oboe, bassoon, bass, and organ. The very famous chorale, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” makes two appearances in this cantata, speedily leapt along, spreading cheer. In Part Two of this cantata, Brian Giebler, Emily Marvosh, and Peter Walker each made distinguished contributions. All of the singers seemed to be enjoying themselves, and the always-welcome opportunity to deliver Bach.

The admirable H+H concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky deftly delivered the devilishly difficult Mystery (Rosary) Sonata No. 1, “The Annunciation,” by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber (1644-1704), a musical meditation on the story of Mary being told she will be the mother of Jesus. After this, we heard “Populi omnes jubilate,” a Latin motet for double chorus, from “Florilegia Portensis II by a composer (like so many others from this era) unknown to me, Martin Roth (ca. 1580-1610). Pleasant enough.

H+H’s Bach Christmas( Lara Silberklang photo)

The superb soloists Margot Rood and Maggie Finnegan, soprano; Emily Marvosh, contralto; Jonas Burris, tenor; and Peter Walker, bass-baritone made much of J. S. Bach’s Cantata 36, “Schwingt freudig euch empor” (Soar joyfully upwards). Among the very fine instrumentalists, oboist Debra Nagy, trumpet/tromba da tirarsi (slide trumpet) Jesse Levine, and cellist Guy Fishman deserve extra commendation. The duet with Emily Marvosh and Margot Rood, as well as the solos of Jonas Budris and Peter Walker particularly deserve admiring notice. It’s amazing to realize that all of these singers are working almost every day and night through this season, yet all under the inspiring direction of Scott Allen Jarret, they committed to this performance as if it were the most important of their careers. The program will be repeated on Sunday at 3 PM, H+H’s 2,365th concert. They are definitely doing a lot right.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

12 Comments

  1. My wife, son and I have been attending the Sunday concert for the last several years. We are also supporters of the BSO.

    Our experience in this concert was quite different than that of your reviewer. We found the material to be presented in a very down manner, not with the joy of the season. All were technically competent but they did not put any life into their art.

    We noted that a number of concert goers joined us in departing at the first intermission.

    This is too bad as the H&H concert has been a key part of our Christmas experience.

    Comment by James Cogan — December 18, 2017 at 6:24 pm

  2. I happened to also be at the Sunday performance, and found it to be very lively and very heartfelt. I find it very interesting that one comment speaks of the lack of joy in the concert, after leaving after the one and only intermission. How is that possible ?
    Bravo Handel and Haydn for your continued commitment to excellent performance, now if you could fix the horribly uncomfortable seats at Jordan Hall !

    Comment by Paul Cousineau — December 19, 2017 at 2:48 pm

  3. For the record, there are concerts and then there are Concerts. There is “seasonal” music (Christmas) then there is a well-thought-out program of interesting music well presented (H&H). Perhaps those leaving at the intermission had been seeking a “seasonal” concert; maybe turning on the iHeart Radio App or something like that might have worked better for them. Good review; made me wish I had been there; I’m still recovering from 7 operas in 22 days a month ago. I also remember Michael Steinberg’s “review” that started it all; a 10.0 earthquake, to put it mildly. Whatever became of Michael Steinberg? Did he wind up living out of a piano box with a few planks off on one end on Dover Street? Finally, does anyone ever do a “Victorian”-style “Big” Messiah, not necessarily using Ebenezer Prout’s edition (1902, I believe) complete with the slower tempi and more instruments than just strings, oboes, trumpets, and timpani?

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — December 27, 2017 at 8:25 am

  4. If that was a serious question, Steinberg left the Globe in the late 1970s and went on to work for decades as artistic adviser and program writer for the BSO, SFSO, and Minnesota SO; published several highly acclaimed books of notes; married a concertmaster; taught, lectured, and more; died in 2009.

    Comment by david moran — December 27, 2017 at 11:46 am

  5. Thank you for reminding me about Michael Steinberg. Just read (found on the San Francisco Orchestra website)
    his Mahler 4 program notes.

    What a pleasure!

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — December 27, 2017 at 12:58 pm

  6. Well, get his three big OUP books plus the Beethoven quartet one, and you can have myriad pleasures ahead: elegantly written cultural history and apprehendable musical analyses. You don’t even have to be listening or follow in score. (There’s a reason certain aspiring reviewers quote his work whenever appropriate.) Some of his other work not in book form can be found online, not only in the Globe archives, of course, but also random notes on piano and chamber works (his next-planned books) and much more. Some droll organ writing is at http://organfocus.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/heiller-booklet.pdf. There is much more. Big obituaries he did for the Boston Phoenix are not yet online, for example.

    Comment by david moran — December 27, 2017 at 4:47 pm

  7. forget about Ebeneeeezer…the Goosens/Beecham version of Messiah emerged from copyright purgatory a few years back. I have been shopping it to conductors for years without getting anywhere. It needs soloists like Jon Vickers, et all for effective revivals, though. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h8uqJ06qK6A

    https://classicalvoiceamerica.org/2013/12/21/handel-messiah-eugene-goosens-edition-national-symphony-orchestra-rossen-milanov-review/

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 27, 2017 at 6:53 pm

  8. Why is the central section of “The Trumpet Will Sound” (i.e., “For this corruptible must put on incorruption,” the section before the Da Capo) always omitted from the H&H performances? (Boston Baroque always includes it.) It’s not very long, less than 1/3 the length of the first section. It features perhaps the most magnificent example of “imitation in music” on the word “immortality,” a melisma of nine bars on the syllable “-tal” in its first iteration, followed by a second melisma lasting TEN bars on that same syllable. What a brilliant and witty underlining of the concept of immortality!

    In Max Spicker’s revision of T. Tertius Noble’s edition there’s a footnote that states “This section is generally omitted,” but no reason is given. Is there a scholarly reason for this, or is it sometimes omitted because it’s so damn difficult to sing? Whenever I’ve heard it sung well, there’s always a spontaneous burst of wild applause from the audience. Surely, that’s not the reason H&H omits it?

    Comment by Alan Levitan — December 28, 2017 at 12:14 pm

  9. Alan- I will ask management.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 28, 2017 at 4:52 pm

  10. I find it interesting to see Michael Steinberg’s name and memory evoked once again. In Boston, certainly, he forever changed and improved the standards of music criticism, at a time when arts coverage in the daily press was much broader than today. Controversial in his day, he brought infinitely deeper knowledge of music history and theory, and an arguably sharper ear, than this town had heretofore experienced, to his newspaper reviews.

    He had a thorny intellect and personality; I wonder to what degree his experience as a persecuted Jew in Europe continued to haunt him somewhere inside. Was he always compassionate towards the difficult lot of the musical performer? Certainly not. Was he always correct in his judgements? Not that, either. He did, however, take the art of music very seriously, writing about it with intelligence and commitment, and I believe that, overall, his contribution was a positive one.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — December 29, 2017 at 1:44 pm

  11. This warm memoir and more (including origins) is responsive to, and indeed may modulate, some of these questions:

    https://global.oup.com/academic/product/for-the-love-of-music-9780195370201?cc=us&lang=en&#

    Such a relief to read that, ‘overall, his contribution was a positive one’.

    Comment by david moran — December 29, 2017 at 3:37 pm

  12. Speaking of approaches to Messiah:

    https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/01/01/handels-messiah-on-skid-row

    Comment by david moran — January 3, 2018 at 11:22 pm

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