The Commonwealth’s oldest performing arts organization[i] reset its 545-day cessation of in-person concerts before an expectant and celebratory Esplanade crowd last night. With greatly reinforced numbers on stage, largeness of spirit, a new text, and a brilliant Marin Alsop as conductor, the 207-year-old Handel and Haydn Society, in its 2,536th performance, placed Beethoven’s 197-year-old ninth symphony before 10,000 souls. The message: We’re back and we want to share the joy.
Sharing, even on a beautiful summer night with listeners spread out on the greensward, suffered from certain limitations. One enjoys the celebratory return to normalcy and delights in joining such a large, adoring crowd, but a critic also needs to note the elements of distancing…beyond just the distances.
We have complained before about the inadequacies of the sound systems on the Esplanade. Not to belabor that issue, but from the section where management had seated us, a single speaker rattled and buzzed at us whenever lower strings were to be heard (we therefore couldn’t tell whether they were equipped with gut or rubber bands). Thus we would be remiss in making any definitive comments about the gorgeous-looking early clarinets, brass, oboes and transverse flutes. Despite the individual miking of all the players (clip-on mikes on the upper strings), the subtleties of the historic timbres did not survive the conversion to modern loudspeakers; Scorpio Sound Systems’ installation did nevertheless afford good volume and coverage. And a replay through a great HiFi could be revelatory, though I gather there will not be a stream.
Our impressions of the attractive instruments arrived via closeups on the jumbo video screen. The AV crew from Remote Facilities Services Inc did wonders making the images look bright and sharp in the wan, low-level pool of general lighting supplied by the DCR’s dim bulbs on standards. By contrast the adjacent playing fields sported powerful and efficient high-intensity lighting. What does that say about priorities? Mike Vendeland and his assistant Daniel J. Singer executed a video script that followed the solos and sections without annoying quick cuts. They gave the spotlight-ready Alsop generous screen time, but the placement of the cameras must have been a factor in our seeing so little of the bright red mane of concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky.
Watching Alsop wrestle with demons, dance with sprites, and float with divinities made for great theater. She described bold interpretative arcs, shaped great tuttis, summoned moving solos without excessive cuing. Even with the requisite relaxations, the drive to destination never flagged, though concentration lagged in the Adagio.
In that sublime third movement one really missed communing with others in a shared space. That could only have worked outdoors if the venue employed overhead, surround-sound speakers that enveloped the crown into a virtual temple of music. And what with the distanced invloved and traffic commotion, Alsop could not summon the divine tranquility the movement demands, bringing it in at a brisk 13 minutes, as opposed to a more typical 15. I understand why. And some uncomfortable tuning also barred our transport to higher spheres, though moments, such as the exquisite natural horn solo from Todd Williams in the final variation did take us up a couple of rungs on Jacob’s ladder from the prevailing meh. Alsop’s affect seemingly sought extra expression. I wish we could have heard what she must have had in her head.
The Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso opening movement came across with enough charge and engagement to feel fresh and new. Slight vagaries of alignment can probably be attributed to the reported lack of a full dress rehearsal in the shell. And one wonders how well the players could hear each other.
In the Molto vivace we heard great work from the Baroque cans of timpanist Jonathan Hess, and in the trio, when the trombones entered to such great effect, pure HIP ensued, from a HIP ensemble that rarely gives any cause for worry. Alsop drew plenty of engagement and shifted through all the contrasting sections with authority.
The visual excitement of the finale began when the gigantic, augmented H+H chorus processed onto their risers. We understand the need for a full sound outdoors, and for large numbers to do community building, but because of the availability of amplification, one wondered whether the H+H professional chorus we know and admire would have done just fine…and with “more pleasing and joyful tones.”
Of course we don’t hear a singer for some time. The orchestral introduction to the fourth movement, which so artfully summarizes the previous three, takes it’s time before the lower strings intone the famous Joy theme, soon interrupted so electrically by the baritone’s, “Oh Friends, not these tones.” You ain’t heard nothing yet, he seems to be saying…or he would have been making such a declaration had he been intoning Beethoven’s own words. Instead we heard Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, and 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States Tracy K. Smith’s text, “O friend, my heart has tired/ Of such darkness./ Now it vies for joy.”, vividly and forcefully projected to the heavens with conviction and amplitude by bass-baritone Dashon Burton in a startling and show-stopping turn.
The members of the vocal quartet listened well to one another, emerging from collectivity appropriately. The alto part is usually lost in the textures, but on this night, with the great ears of artful sound mixer Steve Colby, one could take joy from the long, warm lines of mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven. Soprano Susanna Phillips soared with lustrous authority. Issachah Savage, a tenor with clarion pipes, deserves the most-valuable-player award. He spoke to all the inhabitants of the earth in his transcendent moment.
As the movement, a choral fantasy or a symphony complete unto itself, went through its four sections, anticipation built. In the choral and vocal parts, Smith’s lyric ode always followed Schiller’s metric scheme, and sometimes even the Germanic tone coloring. We provide a three-column parallel version HERE. And readers will benefit from Cashman Kerr Prince’s exegesis HERE.
“Battered planet, home of billions,/ Our long shadow stalks your face.” sang out with dramatic inevitability. “To Earth, forgive us, claim us, let us/ Live in humble thanks and joy,” a chorus of cicadas from the bush near us rasped their assent. The ten thousand witnesses and 100+ performers seemed profoundly moved by the final line of text, “Let us praise you in one voice” (“you” represents the Earth, not the Creator). And so say all of us.
[i] The 235-year-old Stoughton Musical Society claims first place, but respondents can only identify 270 performances in that history.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer