Thursday, October 24, 2013

Going solo at Handel and Haydn

The chorus of the Handel and Haydn Society.
A sad shadow seemed to linger over Handel and Haydn's season opener, Bach's Mass in B Minor (now some three weeks in the past!), as the orchestra had recently borne a double blow: the deaths of two of its mainstays, timpanist John Grimes and horn player Richard Menaul.  Likewise the Mass itself seems somehow connected to Bach's own passing (he died only a year after it was completed - he was already blind at the time), as it mixes new composition with revised work drawn from four decades of his career (and hence serves as a kind of summation of his sacred music).

Still, the atmosphere of the performance was hardly sombre, much less lachrymose; instead it was engaged, exploratory and committed (as the dear departed would have wished). Which I suppose is only what one would expect, as piece by piece this musical monument is brilliant in terms of structure and metaphor, consistently surprises in its shifts of tone and feeling, and is shot through repeatedly with a joyous affirmation of the promise of resurrection (poignant indeed, considering the state of Bach's health at the time). I couldn't argue that conductor Harry Christophers quite conveyed the sense of deep emotional "summation" many claim for the Mass - but I'm an agnostic on this point, as I'm prone to consider it more survey than summary, anyway; but no one could deny Christophers drew many moments of compelling and exquisite beauty from its famous passages, and clearly had modeled each movement with sympathetic insight born of long experience.  

He also made the laudable decision to cast his soloists entirely from within the ranks of his chorus. This is becoming something of a tradition at H&H, and as they boast (in my opinion, at least) the most accomplished chorale in town, they can field a range of talent wide enough to cover even the demands of the B Minor Mass. Still, I must mention (as I have before) the need for a little stage coaching for those new to the spotlight.  By now such local lights as Teresa Wakim and Emily Marvosh know precisely how to hold an audience through physical presence and emotion; not every chorister is quite so confident - but with a little support, they could be, methinks.

More often than not, however, such questions were banished from my mind by the vocal performances themselves.  Wakim, of course, shone in her duet with tenor Matthew Anderson (Domine Deus), and I was taken elsewhere with performances by basses Woodrow Bynum and David McFerrin, as well as alto Margaret Lias.  But it was really alto Emily Marvosh's night; she gave the concluding Agnus Dei both a sense of trembling tragedy and a curious kind of chill.  It was a remarkable performance - how long will it be before we see her (like Wakim) more often in solo roles than with the chorus?  (Not very long, I'd bet.)

But I don't want to forget the the orchestra, which despite its recent losses played with commitment (at least after a slightly unfocused opening).  Flautist Christopher Krueger was, as always, remarkable, as was Stephen Hammer on the period oboe d'amore; the brass was in the finest form of all, however (that's Jesse Levine, Bruce Hall and Paul Perfetti on trumpet, and R.J. Kelley on horn). And of course the chorus itself was, as always, a model of passionate clarity - and so cohesive that perhaps they counted as the ultimate soloist of the concert.

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