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Coronation Anthems (HWV 257-260)

Selections from Solomon (HWV 67), Semele (HWV 58), Jephtha (HWV 70)

Handel and Haydn Society

Symphony Hall, 301 Massachusetts Avenue, Boston

Friday, Oct. 3, 2008

New conductors can be traumatizing, regardless of the quality of the ensemble — the tension surrounding these changes originates from the very heart of the complex relationship between an orchestra and its conductor.

The entire system seems turned on its head: here are the musicians, negotiating physically and intellectually difficult passages of music at the tyrant command of a single conductor, yet it’s the conductor, the individual who goes to the stand and simply waves the baton in moments of inexplicable conjure, who receives all the glory. Why should the ones who appear to be doing the most amount of work be receiving the least amount of credit for it? Marx would have a lot to say about this.

But appearances can be deceiving. Regardless of what’s going on during a performances, a good conductor shapes the music into its final form. A good conductor not only considers the piece as a whole — what, precisely, the music is trying to say, how it tries to say it — but, perhaps most importantly, how to communicate this using the ensemble at hand.

So there’s a relationship that forms: members of the ensemble get used to the tricks and thinking that every conductor uses to explain the music, conductors gain an intimate understanding of the abilities and tenor of the ensemble, what’s appropriate, and how to articulate music the most effectively, given the group at hand.

As both audience member and performer, it’s difficult to know what to make of a new conductor, especially during early performances. Things change, sounds are different, and it takes a good while for a group to become familiar with its new leader, the conductor to come to an understanding of the ensemble.

This is why the Handel and Haydn Society’s performance on Friday, October 3rd was such a difficult one to interpret. The Handel and Haydn Society, the nation’s oldest continuously performing ensemble, has undergone some recent renovations, landing British conductor Mr. Harry Christophers at the stand.

Adding to the confusion, of course, was the program of Händel’s coronation anthems and opera excerpts. George Fredric Händel wears many faces: there’s the religious zealot of the Messiah (HWV 56), or the playful innovator of the Fireworks (HWV 351) and Watermusic (HWV 348). The coronation anthems and the opera excerpts provide two very different versions of Händel.

Written for the coronations of King George II and Queen Caroline of England (a gentle reminder of historical context that this was the music that was playing in the halls of the British monarchy during the American Revolution), the anthems themselves are stiff, thickset pieces of music, dutifully following text and purpose, and the performance followed suit. The anthems were not without their moments: “The King shall rejoice” (HWV 260), for instance, raised eyebrows even in the modern audience with its unique setting of “Allelujah” and “Zadok the Priest” (HWV 258) was a surprising climax at the end of the evening.

Händel seemed much more of himself in the operatic excerpts. Soprano Gillian Keith provided a consistently thrilling performance. Händel’s facility with vocal arrangements became clear as the soloist and chorus glibly alternated in “Welcome as the cheerful light” from Jephtha (HWV 70) and “Endless pleasure” from Semele (HWV 58). Keith was featured soloist for much of the remaining program and was able to highlight Händel’s great talent as a dramatist.

“Myself I shall adore,” from Semele, sparkled as Keith facilely negotiated melismatic acrobatics while maintaining the dramatic flair of the opera stage. In contrast, Keith was sensitive to the tragedy of “My racking thoughts,” also from Semele, in which we explore the anxious inner psyche of the heroine.

The purely orchestral portions of the evening seemed less settled; the opening “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” from Solomon was marred by messy solo work. The overtures to Jephtha and Semele did not have the same stunning effect as the choral anthems and opera selections.

Certainly, this may have been a function of using period instruments in the context of Symphony Hall. A space constructed for the lush sounds of the Romantic symphony, Symphony Hall did not support the more spare sounds of the harpsichord, theorbo and baroque instruments as well as a church or a salon — the intended spaces for this form of music — may have. Certainly, in combination with a new conductor and the varied moods of Händel, this led to a unique listening of the music.

That said, however, this is an exciting time to be listening to the Handel and Haydn Society: it is far too early to judge whether Christophers’s pairing with the ensemble is a successful one yet, as both ensemble and conductor grow to an understanding of each other. But, given Mr. Christopher’s considerable credentials and the Handel and Haydn Society’s distinguished history, this is a combination to keep watching.