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Renowned orchestra's reputation poses constant challenges

THE HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY

Christopher Hogwood, artistic director.

With solo appearances by Lorraine Hunt,

Drew Minter, Jeffrey Gall, Sanford

Sylvan, Nancy Armstrong, and David

Gordon.

Symphony Hall, February 5.

By EARL C. YEN

NOW DON'T GET THE WRONG impression -- I really did enjoy last Sunday afternoon's concert presented by the Handel and Haydn Society. The highly contrasting selections -- one by Henry Purcell, the other by J. S. Bach -- were performed to a very professional level. Led by one of Britain's most active conductors, the chorus and orchestra generally played both a technically strong and emotionally inspiring concert.

The director, Christopher Hogwood, highlighted his two pieces by discussing (for twenty minutes) these two baroque pieces and their structures. In fact, Purcell's Come, Come Ye Sons of Art, an Ode for the Birthday of Queen Mary II, an affectionate and melodic celebration of Purcell's patroness, did stand in sharp contrast to Bach's Magnificat in D Major, an ambitious and dramatic adaption of one of the most dramatic passages in the New Testament.

Featuring an impressive quartet of soloists, the ensemble captured the simple, lyrical nature of the Purcell composition. Tenors Drew Minter and Jeffrey Gall sang their beautifully interwoven duets in a fittingly elegant but unpretentious style.

What was lacking, if anything, in this performance was the crispness of ensemble between the chorus and the orchestra. The very simplicity of this baroque piece leaves the chorus and orchestra constantly exposed, and, in this performance, the orchestra in particular would have profited from greater attention to detail. Furthermore, the tone of the string section was not as full and rich as was expected, even for a section using a more restrained baroque style. The strings, in a supporting role, should not have been overpowering, and they in fact were not; on the contrary, their performance seemed overly timid.

In the Bach, the overall performance was again quite impressive, largely due to the consistently brilliant vocal soloists, especially soprano Lorraine Hunt. The "Magnificat," which is based on the Virgin Mary's speech in the Gospels describing her awed happiness at her pregnancy, is a highly charged, tightly composed piece whose tone alternates from Messianic grandeur to a deep solemnity.

Hunt, tenors Minter and David Gordon, soprano Nancy Armstrong, and baritone Sanford Sylvan, take turns at playing the meek and humble Mary. Hunt and Armstrong personalize Mary's relationship with God, and in various ensembles, the others emphasize the profoundness of the scene. At the risk of nit-picking, I would add that the orchestra (or Hunt, who has a powerful and pretty voice) could perhaps have used some extra rehearsal time to coordinate Hunt's delicate entrances with the rest of the group.

All in all, the Handel and Haydn Society put on a fairly solid performance. Was it enjoyable? Absolutely. So why did I feel somewhat of a letdown walking out of Symphony Hall? I think I had heard so many good things about this group that my expectations were probably too high. This ensemble is, without a doubt, a delight to hear and watch. But to me, on this Sunday afternoon, the Handel and Haydn Society became a victim of its own rising reputation.