Fuse Classical Music Review: The Handel and Haydn Society — An Amazing 202nd Season Opener

This is a major Bach town and, judging by this evening, no ensemble performs his music much better than Handel & Haydn under Harry Christophers.

Harry Christophers Photo: Stu Rosner.

Harry Christophers conducting The Handel and Haydn Society. Photo: Stu Rosner.

By Susan Miron

Somehow, in my forty-one years in Boston — six as a music critic — I had never managed to hear the renowned Boston institution, The Handel and Haydn Society, now in its 202nd year. But this weekend’s program (final performance today at 3 p.m. at Symphony Hall) features Bach’s Magnificat, and that lured me in. I felt like a musical tourist in my adopted hometown, finally taking the opportunity to experience this extremely popular instrumental and vocal ensemble and their “historically informed performances.”

Founded in Boston in 1815, H & H, is the oldest continuously performing arts organization in the U.S. It prides itself on its “longevity, capacity to reinvention, and a distinguished history of premieres,” as well as its distinguished Artistic Director, Harry Christophers. Its C.V. is mighty impressive, as was its recent fundraising effort to raise $12 million, which resulted in the group pulling in about two million more than that. For many Bostonians, their annual performance of Handel’s Messiah is a must-see experience.

The first thing that struck me was the friendliness of its H & H’s many greeters (a task close to my heart because I do this for several organizations). A palpable sense of occasion was communicated, given that the ensemble was visiting Symphony Hall. The pre-concert lecture and program notes by Teresa Neff were excellent (this is not something that one can take for granted). The all-Bach program — with one work by Heinrich Schütz — featured two motets, a concerto for 3 violins, two cantatas, and ended with the glorious Magnificat. All the works, Neff pointed out, were uplifting and celebratory. Here was a cleverly constructed program that served up hope and cheer from beginning to end. And, because most of the works were unfamiliar to me, it was a chance to hear “new” music by my favorite composer (1685-1750) and one by the marvelous Schütz (1585-1672).

I generally dislike the sound of period instruments, although I have heard the best in the business (several who played Friday night) in my tour of duty as a reviewer in Boston. But I love choral music, and realized immediately that H & H’s chorus featured the very best singers in this city, several whom I had heard over the years in Lorelei and Blue Heron. The concert opened with Bach’s motet “Komm, Jesu, Komm,” BVD 229, which, like most of the works that followed,  specialized in “text painting,” a lyrical approach where the music deftly reflects the words. Bach’s six motets were generally written for funerals; this motet for double chorus starts off focusing on  human weariness and failing strength but then moves on to an almost dancelike evocation of the longing for salvation.

The orchestra thinned out for Bach’s Concerto for Three Violins in D Major, BWV 1064R. The ensemble featured H & H’s concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky, Christina Day Martinson, and Susanna Ogata along with fourteen other players. It was hard to miss that, of the 17 musicians, on stage there were only three men: cellist Guy Fishman, bassist Anthony Manzo, and organ and harpsichord player Ian Watson (all were excellent throughout the concert). It was a very unusual sight. This charming, three-movement work comes with an interesting back story. There is no original manuscript that we know of for this composition. What we heard on Friday was a scholarly reconstruction of the Concerto for Three Harpsichords, BWV 1064, which itself had been adapted from an earlier concert for three violins. There were several lovely star turns by Nosky and Martinson in a piece that provided plenty of fun for the three featured musicians. The audience went wild; the trio of violins was a big hit.

Bach’s Cantata 149, “Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg,” featured three singers whose voices and musicality I have admired, and a voice new to me, mezzo-soprano Catherine Hedberg. All sing in the H & H chorus; all were wonderful. I admired, for the umpteenth time, Margot Rood and her transcendentally beautiful voice; she also sang in the Magnificat. Tenor Jonas Budris and baritone David McFerrin made splendid contributions, as did the three trumpets and the excellent bassoonist, Andrew Schwartz.

The chorus continued to sing magnificently in Bach’s lovely Cantata 50, “Nun is das Heil und die Kraft” and in Schütz’s “Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener, SWV 432. (Bach most likely sang Schütz compositions when he lived in Luneberg, Germany.) Finally, Bach’s Magnificat in D Major, BWV 243 arrived, and it received a magnificent performance. This piece, like The Handel and Haydn Society, was a treat that I had somehow neglected to hear over the years. I am grateful for such a tremendous introduction. Originally performed on Christmas in 1723, the composition was revised by Bach so it could be sung on any feast day. The text from Luke is divided between chorus and soloists. The oboists, particularly Gonzalo Ruiz, and flutes, Christopher Krueger and Wendy Rolfe, were superb. Sopranos Sonja DuToit Tengblad and Margot Rood contributed memorabl arias, although all of the soloists were very fine, indeed.

The evening was a musical triumph. This is a major Bach town and, judging by this evening, no ensemble performs his music much better than H & H under Harry Christophers. What an amazing start to a season, let alone to the 202th!

Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. She is part of the Celtic harp and storytelling duo A Bard’s Feast with renowned storyteller Norah Dooley and, until recently, played the Celtic harp at the Cancer Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital.

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