History repeats itself at H+H bicentennial concert

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2015/11/23/history-repeats-itself-at-hh-bicentennial-concert/

With flair and fanfare, Boston’s Handel & Haydn Society celebrated its bicentennial on November 21st with a historic concert at King’s Chapel. The program featured the same music from the group’s inaugural performance at the church on Christmas Day in 1815. In a press review of that first concert, the author declared the chorus’ peerless “superiority.” Two hundred years later, this commentator is pleased to concur.

In her introductory remarks, Rev. Joy Fallon observed that King’s Chapel has changed little since its founding in 1686. She also noted that it was the first church in puritan Boston to “have the audacity to celebrate Christmas.” Since the Handel & Haydn Society was founded to introduce Bostonians to the finest European music, their first concert must have been a startling revelation for early 19th century Christmas churchgoers. As the music filled the hall, I caught sight of an American flag swaying gracefully outside the Palladian window above the chancel. Surely, the group’s founders would be gratified by the outcome of their experiment of introducing beautiful music from the old world to the new, emergent city.

The concert opened with anticipatory solemnity as the chorus members entered in a candlelight procession singing the plainsong Veni creator spiritus. Other than an occasional wisp of awkward Latin pronunciation, the performance was inspiring and well-executed. William Byrd’s Laudibus in sanctis followed in close succession. The a cappella singing highlighted the chorus’ mastery of intonation, rhythm, and technical precision.

With his proverbial grace and finesse, Artistic Director Harry Christophers led the ensemble in a spirited rendition of Handel’s Coronation Anthem No. 3, The King shall rejoice. It was no mean feat for Christophers to infuse nuance into a decidedly unnuanced work. Handel composed the piece to fit the bold, grandiose style of the coronation ceremonies at Westminster Abbey. The chorus gave a robust performance with impeccable timing and seamless blending, filling King’s Chapel with an infectious enthusiasm.

The program continued with hymns from The Old Colony Collection anthology, which the Handel & Haydn Society published in the early 19th century. In James Kent’s Hear my prayer, O God, soprano Margot Rood and contralto Emily Marvosh regaled the audience with their discerning interpretation of the text and skillful performance. Marvosh’s ravishing vocal timbre is an extraordinary feast for the ears. Cellist Guy Fishman, a perennial audience favorite, provided elegant and perceptive accompaniment.

The soloists gave a glittering display of vocal dexterity in Mozart’s Almighty God! when round thy shrine. Bass David McFerrin and tenor Jonas Budris were particularly adroit at tackling the technically demanding piece.

The finest performance of the evening was Thomas Linley’s Bow down Thine ear, O Lord. It was an stirring amalgam of splendid choral color, first-rate soloists, imaginative accompaniment, and masterful conducting. Christophers did not succumb to the temptation to hurry the tempo, which is occasionally a problem. As a result, the audience was able to savor the beauty and subtlety of the music and performance.

Drawing from their acclaimed concert featuring Haydn’s The Creation last May (also recorded live for their CD), the program continued with The Heavens are telling. The oratorio excerpt alternates between contemplative passages by a trio of soloists and exuberant choral reflections on the wonders of the universe. Christophers navigated the contrasting sections with assiduous balance. The chorus made the most of Haydn’s rousing finale, which is prolonged due his use of multiple codas. With their crisp phrasing and jubilant singing, the ensemble exhibited the sheer confidence that comes from nearly two hundred years performing The Creation, which they premièred in 1819.

The program concluded with the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah. It was a fitting end for the historic concert, since it was the Handel & Haydn Society who first introduced American audiences to the work in 1818. Although they’ve sung it myriad times, the chorus members performed with effervescent passion.

All in all, it was a characteristically refined and festive concert that we’ve come to expect from the venerable ensemble.

Handel & Haydn Society’s Bicentennial Season continues with Handel’s Messiah Nov. 27-29 at Symphony Hall, followed by Holiday Sing on Dec. 12 at Faneuil Hall, and Bach Christmas on Dec. 17 and 20 at NEC’s Jordan Hall.

Contact Mary McCleary at [email protected].

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