Friday, October 10, 2008

When Harry Met Handel

When I heard Harry Christophers (left) conduct Messiah last winter, I felt pretty confident it was the best version I'd ever heard; and the impression that Mr. Christophers has a special affinity for Handel was only amplified by last weekend's H&H program "Celebrate Handel!" In the meantime, of course, Christophers has been appointed the organization's Artistic Director - so the coronation anthems for George II studding the program did double duty for the new King Harry, too.

If it sounds like I'm purring over the new crown prince, well, I am; it's hard to imagine H&H finding a better interpreter of at least half their namesake composers - and if they hang onto Roger Norrington as a guest conductor, they've got a lock on the other half, too. Like Norrington, Christophers is smart but straightforward, and conducts with physical verve and emotional openness - he's at home both with Handel's rhetoric and his sublimated rapture (which in his hands never seems to sound academically simulated, as it so often can). Throughout the coronation anthems the conductor drew a light, dignified energy from the H&H orchestra that sometimes built cleanly from quiet reflection to genuine joy ("My Heart is Inditing") and at other times spun on a dime from swimming lyricism to triumphant blast (the famous opening line of "Zadok the Priest"). His work with his singers was even subtler and more compelling; in collaboration with John Finney, Christophers draws performances from the H&H chorus that are consistent marvels of clarity, poise, and emotional commitment.

I longed for more from the choir, but the program, for the sake of variety (which is hardly a bad thing), had been divided between the gigantic anthems and a series of vocal "miniatures" from three of Handel's opera-like oratorios, Solomon, Jephtha, and Semele. Sung by Canadian soprano Gillian Keith (whom we'll see again at the Boston Early Music Festival in Antiochus und Stratonica), these proved a mixed lot, but definitely improved as the evening progressed. Ms. Keith looked luscious in a "goddess gown" that clung in all the right places, but at first her voice, though glowing at the top, seemed to fall away into breathiness at the bottom, and her presentation seemed fluid but mannered; of the selections from Jephtha, she only really impressed with the lyrical "Tune the soft, melodious lute" (above right).

When she returned for a suite from Semele, however, Keith seemed bent on redeeming herself. The voice had opened up, and she made a simple, poignant statement of the plaintive "My racking thoughts." Her biggest audience-pleaser, however, was "Myself I shall adore," in which she play-acted Semele's innocent narcissism to the hilt. A deeper interpretation, I think, might have hinted at the tragic consequences of this conceit (Semele winds up immolated thanks to her self-confidence) but as a stand-alone "number," as it were, Keith's witty take did no harm, and certainly delighted the crowd.

And the delight continued with the finale, "Zadok the Priest," which shook the rafters with its full-throated triumph. As the last notes died away, it came as a slight shock to realize that, due to H&H's programming, Christophers won't return till next year, when he promises to refocus the group's programming around its two H's (although the pieces he mentioned in the performance talkback ran the gamut from Bach to Brahms!). That year may feel like a long wait.

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