Friday, December 19, 2008

Jingle-bell Bach

The chorus of the Handel and Haydn Society.

It's rare that a classical music concert manages to be cozy, and actually capture something of a "just us friends" holiday atmosphere; but that's what's most striking (for good and, perhaps, a little bad) about Handel and Haydn's "A Bach Christmas," which repeats this Sunday afternoon at Jordan Hall. Conducted by H&H's longtime chorusmaster, John Finney, the program features two lesser-known Bach cantatas, No. 151 and 191 (yes, you read those numbers right, toward the end of his career the great J.S. was cranking out a cantata every week) as well as the famous Magnificat, and depends for its soloists on the singers of the H&H chorus itself (almost every singer, in fact, gets a solo).

This particular gambit provided the concert with much of its charm, but perhaps also set upon it certain limitations. For while there's no question that every singer in the H&H chorus has the vocal chops to take center stage, it's also clear that not all of them are actually happy there; sometimes it seemed one bashful wallflower after another was being dragged out onto the dance floor - where, whaddya know, it turned out they could cut a rug after all; after which they quickly fled back to the anonymous comfort of the chorus line. There were even a few goofy bows from folks for whom the spotlight was clearly an unusual event.

Still, some of these wallflowers did bloom before our eyes. Basses Nicholas Nackley and Donald Wilkinson, along with soprano Susan Consoli, clearly had the confident stage presence required for solo careers; more self-conscious, but still lovely, turns came from soprano Roberta Anderson (who seemed unaware her top notes were pure as pearl) and tenors Murray Kidd, Thomas Gregg, and Mark Sprinkle, as well as altos Susan Byers Paxson and Katharine Emory.

The orchestral soloists were likewise sparkling, including, as always, Jesse Levine and Paul Perfetti on natural trumpet (here almost comically long, like trumpets from Whoville, as J.S. tends to write for the top of that instrument's range), but in particular Stephen Hammer on "oboe d'amore" (I'm not kidding, that's what it's called) and flutists Christopher Krueger and Wendy Rolfe, who played gracefully together in one exquisitely fluid duet. Somehow the warm, humble sound of the flute seemed almost a signature of this concert, as conductor Finney (above left) steered clear of the magnificence that sometimes accrues, ironically enough, to the Magnificat - originally a kind of ode to the humility of Mary - and emphasized instead the rustic humility of the source story of Christmas.

That this gentle warmth is sometimes lost in both the secular and sacred expressions of the holiday only made Finney's approach more welcome. To be honest, I wasn't wild about his integration of orchestra and chorus (which seemed even smaller than it did in Messiah); perhaps due to its small size, the multifaceted vocal line seemed at times to blur into the instrumental playing, when my sense is both should be crisply defined components of the overall sound. After all, Bach (so unlike Handel!) essentially wrote for the human voice as if it were just another keyboard instrument - with somebody else handling the bellows offstage - and even when his mood is humble, his mode is always precise. Still, in the smaller ensembles the interweave of voice and instrument was impeccable and gently lively, and Finney is to be thanked for bringing a note of humble, but genuine, joy to the holiday season.

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