The Handel & Haydn Society gave what may be one of the most important concerts in its illustrious history. This past weekend at the John F. Kennedy Library, “Crossing the Deep,” rife with physical and emotional metaphor, paired 9 of Handel’s Chandos Anthems, written during his residency at the home of the Duke of Chandos between 1717 and 1719, with Negro Spirituals whose texts reflected on many of the same themes. The electrifying combination, as enlightening as it was unexpected, should dispel forever the notion that period music performed on period instruments is merely a museum outing.
This concert arose out of conversations that ensued among H+H staff following the discovery that Handel had held shares in trading companies involved in the transatlantic slave trade. To try to untangle the threads of the 18th & 19th century world economy and find clean hands would be nearly impossible. What can be done is to accept the reality and the inequality, the human tragedy that resulted from the selling of humans. The ramifications have come down the centuries to our own lives. We can be better, and we must be better. But better has to come with knowledge, acknowledgement, acceptance, and repair, in whatever form that may take. For musicians, there is no better way than by making music.
H + H traveled from its usual Huntington Avenue homes to the Stephen Smith Center Hall at the JFK Library, a room overlooking Dorchester Bay. The chorus and orchestra sat in front of this, and the occasional seagull flying by added to the impression of being on the ocean, of crossing the Atlantic.
Regie Gibson, a spoken word artist clad in bright red, so that he stood out from the standard orchestra/chorus black, nestled us in a poetic, narrative framework of an imagined female listener of the Chandos Anthems, who sensed that the elegant music of Handel masked the deeper, darker truth that the sweetness of the sugar in her afternoon tea was bought at a dearer price than money. It gently led the listener from complacence to questioning to a hopeful openness to change.
For the opening Handel (“O Be Joyful to the Lord”), the chorus stood on the left side of the stage. For the spirituals that followed (“In this Lan” and “Stand the Storm”), the chorus migrated to the right. This movement constituted a powerful visual metaphor of the distance between the elegance of Handel, and the long trip from Africa to the New World. Gentle stage movement of this kind took place throughout the concert; changing configurations kept the concert visually alive as well as musically.
The texts of both the Anthems and the Spirituals touch on God as salvation, home, death, grief. During the very fruitful Q & A period after the concert, one of the singers spoke of the different vocal techniques required by highly stylized classical music and the more intensely emotional style of the spirituals. SShe explained that classically trained musicians often sings sacred texts outside the context of worship. The spirituals’ pairing with the similarly themed Anthems opened up the Handel to a more deeply felt emotions. As an example, the phenomenal clarity of countertenor Reginald Mobley’s ornamentation in “O Be Joyful in the Lord” contrasted with the lament-like vocal glissandi in some of the spirituals. You could hear the weariness and pain behind the spirituals. Both raised goosebumps, but for different reasons.
Probably the stand-out moment, of many, was Brianna Robinson’s heart-rending exhortation “When I’m Dead (don’t you grieve after me). A soprano with a clear, velvet voice that recalls Leontyne Price, her singling inspired literal gasps of breath from the audience when she finished. She conveyed the weariness, the resignation and pain at the heart of someone who has lost everything and everyone of meaning to her. Purcell wrote the same theme in Dido’s Lament, Rev. Gary Davis touches on it in “Death Don’t Have no Mercy”, but this simple arrangement stands with those on equal footing.
Members of the H + H Chorus took turns on solo excursions, and to a person, they were wonderful. Notable moments were Handel’s “Tears are my daily food”, also sung by Ms. Robinson with nimble oboe accompaniment, showing she has fine Baroque chops as well as emotional range. The spiritual “I Wanna Go Home” with humming accompaniment in the chorus came across very effectively. You sensed her distance from “home.”
Handel’s delightful word painting in “Let God Arise (and let his enemies be scattered)” scattered the melody and words scattered across the orchestra and chorus to fine effect.
A baroque style theme and variations setting of “Amazing Grace” concluded the afternoon, reminding us that this universally loved hymn represents the outpouring a one-time slave trader who repented. The chorus processed from the hall humming the tune after an enthusiastic standing ovation.
Anthony Trecek-King, H + H’s Resident Conductor of the Chorus, and Program Consultant Reginald Mobley were the primary instigators of this program. Trecek-King noted that he took his post in 2015, the bicentennial of the Handel & Haydn Society, as its first black conductor, and one of the singers noted that this was the largest number of black people she had ever performed with on a classical stage. H & H is not only on its own road to doing better, but is also opening up its audiences to do the same.
My publisher can’t resist citing his own pairings of spirituals with Bach- and Brahms-Busoni Chorale Preludes in Palm Sunday services in Charlestown over many years. In this 2019 excerpt, soprano Sigourney Cook and pianist Cladius Tankski emote deeply.
Elisa Birdseye, executive director of the Boston Chamber Ensemble, is an active freelance violist and principal violist of the New Bedford Symphony. Additionally, she has worked as the general manager of the New England Philharmonic and Boston Musica Viva.