Handel and Haydn Society’s Sunday afternoon concert at Symphony Hall of a symphony and mass of Haydn, and a violin concerto by Mozart revealed them doing a lot right. Indeed I am a little bit embarrassed to have “discovered” this esteemed ensemble only after four decades of living in Boston. (I cannot be the only Symphony Spouse who didn’t manage to find the time to hear other worthy groups). Thus it was my great pleasure to see and hear so many musicians familiar from other ensembles like Lorelei. And Sunday proved particularly exciting for the opportunity to hear three new superb principal players: Jonathan Hess, percussion; Emi Ferguson, flute; and Deborah Nagy, oboe.
Last week the Society announced that the 2020-21 season would be Artistic Director Harry Christopher’s last. “I am a firm believer that arts organizations need to re-invent themselves every five to ten years,” Christophers noted in a press release accompanying the new season announcement. During his tenure, subscriptions for the organization have risen by 70 percent, the organization’s endowment has grown from $3 million to $11 million. Christophers hired more than 60 percent of the current roster and led H+H through its 2015 bicentennial. I enjoy his conducting very much, and will try not to miss many concerts while he is still here. That should be easy, since both the programs and the soloists look enticing.
The ensemble’s cycle of Haydn symphonies continued with Symphony 99 in E-flat Major (1793, two years after the death of his friend Mozart), the 7th of the 12 “London Symphonies,” This first Haydn symphony in which Haydn used clarinet offered me a first inkling of the beauty in the two new woodwinds, who impressed throughout the concert. Indeed the winds get beautiful solo passages in all four movements of the first symphony Haydn wrote after his release from nearly 30 years of service at the Esterházy court.
From the minute concertmaster/leader Aisslinn Nosky began to play Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219, “Turkish,” she mesmerized, and really outdid herself with striking cadenzas which sparkled with style, musicality, pyrotechnics, and quite a bit of humor. In the middle of one cadenza, she snuck in a “Happy Birthday”― to Mozart. The flute in the second movement sang with particularly beauty, and Nosky played this movement with tenderness and peacefulness. In black leather slacks and a gold top and a long red jacket, Nosky and beguiled and entertained. Her music-making and sparkling personality constituted, for many in the large audience, the high point of a very enjoyable concert.
At this point, I feel I must admit to ignoring Haydn’s music most of my life. He wrote nothing for my instrument, and I guess I was a sore loser. But not too many years ago I discovered and fell madly in love with his piano sonatas (thanks to Marc-Andre Hamelin’s recordings), and loved the F minor, No. 23 so much I now am working at playing it on the harp. This late-life encounter of both Haydn and his Harmoniemesse (1802) made this gorgeous performance even more appreciated.
The beautiful Mass in B-flat Major of 1802, the last of the six mass settings Haydn composed in Vienna following his return from London, the composer’s final work, celebrated the name-days of Princess Esterházy, the wife of the reigning Prince Nicolaus, as had the other five. In their treatment of the orchestra, all six share traits with the “London” symphonies (1791–95). indeed The nickname “Harmoniemesse”— Haydn titled the autograph simply Missa — was appended in response to the unusually prominent parts for the winds, “Harmonie” being the standard German term for a group of wind-instruments. Haydn’s late masses closely resemble The Creation (1798) and The Seasons (1801), especially in the freedom with which Haydn exploits the complementary functions of chorus and soloists—in this case the excellent soprano Mireille Asselin, mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers, tenor Jeremy Budd, and baritone Sumner Thompson. The 36-person chorus executed its role with tremendous sensitivity and fine projection. Annotator Teresa Neff writes, “The musical breath and vision of these two composers challenged, astounded and delighted 18th-century audiences.” The works of these two friends certainly offered an array of delights to this weekend’s appreciative audience.
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.