Thursday, October 7, 2010

Applause, and then more applause, for H&H

Harry Christophers in action.
The Handel and Haydn Society had a problem at its opening concert, "Mozart: A Musical Journey," last weekend.

The audience wouldn't stop applauding.

They applauded in between the movements of Eine kleine Nachtmusik, and then of course at the end, and then they began applauding during the movements of the "Turkish" Violin Concerto (No.5), too.  If they liked something, they applauded; and they seemed to like a lot of what they heard. Finally guest violinist Rachel Podger had to hold up her hand (with a sweet smile) after one particularly breath-taking cadenza to quiet things down.  "Hold on, guys!" she seemed to be saying - or maybe "Just wait, there's more!"

Of course you couldn't really blame the crowd for its enthusiasm - even though the cognoscenti in the forward seats began to look a bit irritable, as they traded glances that read "Oh God, we look like such rubes!"

I don't care much if I look like a rube, of course.  The hall was full of Mozart fans, and they knew great music-making when they heard it, and they wanted the musicians to know, that's all.

And this was great music-making.  The opening, over-familiar bars of Eine kleine Nachtmusk here sang with a such a subtle dynamic that they once again sounded fresh, and violinist Rachel Podger proved to be just as advertised - one of the greatest talents on the violin in the world; with her in the lead, the "Turkish" Concerto throbbed with such a heady rhythmic pulse that for a moment I was sure the whole hall was going to leap to its feet and start to dance.  Artistic director Harry Christophers has already won over the home crowd with his brilliant handling of the H&H chorus; this concert was clearly his bid to do the same thing with its period orchestra, and for most of the program he succeeded brilliantly.

Even the one real obscurity of the concert - the overture and march from Mitridate, a very early opera - proved intriguing in his hands.  The march in particular isn't merely an obscurity but also an oddity, with a strange, dissonant fanfare at its core, which the orchestra essayed with confident force.  It was in the final number of the afternoon, the "Prague" Symphony (No. 38) that it seemed the players lost some steam.  In a way, I understand why - or at least I don't quite understand why the "Prague" has such a high profile among Mozart's symphonies; this version sounded splendid, but a little "Mostly Mozart"-generic, especially after the eccentric profile of Mitridate, and the horns were rough here and there (as natural horns are prone to be).

It seemed clear, upon reflection, that Christophers had actually worked his real miracle in the string section (with, perhaps the help of visiting first violin, Aislinn Nosky, who played with pointed fire).  Eine kleine Nachtmusik was a marvel of exquisitely shifting emotional focus, all done on the fly, and the "Turkish," as I said, was a stomping wonder.  Although here, as the audience would have it, first laurels had to go to the guest star.  Rachel Podger has a happy, hostessy air about her that can seem a bit much at times - but dang, can this gal play.  I'd say she's the Joshua Bell of the period violin, except that she's actually a more sensitive interpreter of musical ideas than Joshua Bell, who pours that "singing" quality he has over everything he plays, whether it needs it or not.  Ms. Podger, by way of contrast, revealed an exquisite sensitivity to Mozart's various moods, and modes; the allegro was lightly spirited while the rondo had a deep, lusty power.  Above all - and this is a hallmark of H&H - Podger was in constant contact with her collaborators, often turning away from the audience to focus on the other players.  Amusingly, you felt a funny kind of social comedy playing out at such moments between her and Nosky - the first violinist was in a punk 'do and pants, the soloist in a garden-party gown; but this was as nothing next to their passionate connection with Mozart.  In such contrasts, and such cooperation, I think lies the particular magic of Handel and Haydn, and perhaps the early music movement in general.

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