Saturday, October 18, 2014

H&H rocks its 200th

Photo: James Doyle

In case you haven't heard, our own Handel and Haydn Society is now 200.

As in years old.

Which makes it the oldest continuously active performing arts organization in the country - and one of the most venerable in the world.  H&H is so old, in fact, that they once commissioned a work from Beethoven himself (alas, the great man died before writing it). At about the same time, they premiered Messiah and The Creation - by their two namesakes - in the New World (later they introduced America to Verdi's Requiem and Bach's St. Matthew Passion). They sang at the memorial service for Thomas Jefferson, and raised their voices again when slavery fell (with Ralph Waldo Emerson onstage as orator; Julia Ward Howe soon joined the chorus) as well as at the death of Abraham Lincoln. In fact when Symphony Hall opened its doors, H&H had been around for 85 years.

But you'd never have guessed its age from the way the Society kicked up its heels last weekend - indeed, it often seemed as spry as a newborn. First there was a fĂȘte for friends and donors - with a surprise announcement that the Society was well on its way (as in $9 million on its way) toward a $12 million fundraising goal (which is wildly ambitious for the period music scene). Then there was a celebratory concert, played to a packed Symphony Hall, and aptly named "Baroque Fireworks" - which included showpieces for both the period orchestra and chorus, as well as opportunities to shine for the Young Men's Chorus and Young Women's Chamber Choir from the Society's Vocal Arts Program.

All this perhaps proved more a pastiche of the baroque era's greatest hits than a thematically coherent program. But no one seemed to care much, and generally the selections all spoke to an appropriate sense of occasion (in a nice touch, a sentimental novelty from the Society's early years, John Stevenson's "They play'd, in air the the trembling music floats," was given an airing, too). And things certainly got off to a rousing start, with the clarion call of trumpets sounding from the balcony for a Monteverdi toccata from Orfeo.

But there were a few false notes among the many pleasing ones. The orchestra didn't achieve the subtly swimming build of Handel's "Zadok the Priest" (although the assembled choral forces of both the Society and its youth program gave this most famous of coronation anthems a satisfyingly mighty blast).  And later, the equally famous "Music for the Royal Fireworks" seemed to sputter after another crackling start (although the final minuet pulled together nicely).

Under conductor Harry Christopher's subtle hand, however, the Society's professional chorus was in superb shape (as always), and did full, luminous justice to the rising complexity of the great Bach motet "Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied"("Sing to the Lord a new song"). They later sounded equally fine in "Worthy is the Lamb" from Messiah - although they perhaps played second fiddle in the second half of the program to a striking rendition of "Summer" from Vivaldi's Four Seasons, led with authority by the Society's popular concert mistress, Aisslinn Nosky.

With her fiery locks (which seem to burn with her passion for playing) Ms. Nosky has become almost an emblem for the orchestra. With whom (as was clear from this performance) she has built a respectful and affectionate bond - for the H&H players followed her all over the map, in what amounted to a freshly compelling reading of this Vivaldi warhorse.

Ms. Nosky seems to always be about extremity - wild speeds, sudden halts and stark contrasts are her trademarks; and she's unafraid, while in the throes of a particular passage, to emit the occasional squeak or squawk. To be honest, I've sometimes found her style more showy than substantive - but she was definitely on to something about Vivaldi's vision of storm clouds rising in an empty summer sky. She swung thrillingly from soft stillness and breezy sighs - punctuated by the drone of the occasional dragonfly - to sudden, thrashing downpours and orchestral crashes. What's more, she held the audience in the palm of her hand throughout: if she entered the stage a star, she left a supernova.

The program soon closed with perhaps its most appealing touch: an audience sing-along to Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus," which left everyone beaming with joy (and of course we stood for it!).  This then led to many cheers, and much stomping of feet - although, alas, no chorus of "Happy Birthday" - but maybe that's coming!  For everyone left in high spirits, looking forward to a 200th season full of concerts as sweet as this one.

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