Thursday, September 29, 2011

Last weekend brought the season opener for the Handel and Haydn Society, and the return to our fair city of artistic director Harry Christophers. By now the success that I predicted for Christophers upon his appointment has become a foregone conclusion - ticket sales are at their highest level in a decade, new recordings have been met with lavish praise, and Christophers' contract has been extended through 2016 (meaning he will guide the Society through the entirety of its bicentennial celebration).

At the center of this story have been the spectacular results Christophers quickly achieved with the H&H chorus; but that success has been shadowed by a slower, more complicated process with the orchestra - particularly the string section.  Much-loved (and well-connected) musicians have been asked to step aside, and local favorites have been passed over in promotions; I myself wondered at some (but hardly all) of these decisions.  At any rate, by now the re-alignment is complete: Canadian Aisslinn Nosky (at left) now leads a re-ordered violin section, while Guy Fishman has assumed the role of principal cellist.

And while I think Christophers has clearly had to pay a political price for these decisions, artistically I have to admit they're already paying off. Nosky's playing is as striking as her hair, and at last Friday's concert, the H&H strings sang with a clean, vibrant fluency they've never quite had before.

But then I sometimes got the sneaky feeling that Christophers had selected his program with the express purpose of showing off his new toy (as it were).  The centerpiece was Mozart's Symphony No. 40, which of course depends utterly upon the strings - and even the fortepiano concerti the conductor had chosen for the first half (Haydn's F-Major Concertino, and Mozart's Concerto No. 22, both essayed by the brilliant Kristian Bezuidenhout) aren't merely showcases for the piano but also extended conversations between keyboard and orchestra.

And then there were the two overtures (to "Autumn," and "Winter") from Haydn's The Seasons, both of which spotlight the strings.  "Autumn" is sweet, but brief as Indian summer - "Winter," however, is a starkly dramatic tour de force, and the orchestra simply played the hell out of it.  The always-welcome Bezuidenhout, meanwhile, was far more sparkling and spontaneous here than when I saw him last spring.  When this pianist is at his best (and he mostly was in this program) everything feels as if it's being improvised by a genius on the fly; Bezuidenhout sounds almost intoxicated by his own talent, and yet always keeps his touch under exquisite control - it's like listening to a kind of pure, baroque jazz, as a friend of mine once put it.  But then perhaps Bezuidenhout was as drunk on his instrument as he was on his music; he had chosen (with a lot of defensive excuse-making), a fortepiano built by Rod Regier after Viennese originals from almost fifty years after Mozart's heyday.   I suppose an early-music specialist would quibble at that, but the moment I heard this instrument's tone I confess I didn't give a damn about its provenance!

Then, after a solid turn through another worthy, if slightly obscure, overture (from Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf's oratorio Esther) came Mozart's familiar 40th, which was more richly rendered here than I think H&H might ever have managed before.  I wouldn't argue that Christophers charted an emotional arc through the whole symphony - which extends from a hauntingly anxious opening to a passionate resolution in which nothing feels at all resolved. Here the separate movements felt like fully-rounded, slightly-disconnected classical entities (which is where attention to detail can sometimes lead).  But minute to minute, the performance was nonetheless ravishing.  The strings sounded sublime, vibrant and evocative yet with a precise sense of balance, and the winds and horns responded with superb grace.  Clearly Mr. Christophers has successfully completed the next step in his artistic mission at Handel and Haydn.  We can't wait for the rest of the journey.

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