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Handel and Haydn Society

Grant Llewellyn, conductor

Symphony Hall

March 20, 2009

Time seems to get distorted in musical history. Somehow, the past two hundred years of music are still very much with us in many different ways. At the very basic, instrumental level, Mozart’s piano is different from the one we play today, Haydn’s horn is much more curmudgeonly and Bach took on the challenge of writing six suites for the curious new cello. But Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and even Beethoven were writing during the very beginning of the industrial revolution, at the very inception of a period of novel metallurgy and mass-produced instruments. And all of this changed the way instruments were made. The standards provided by the technologies of the industrial revolution made it possible to write for a body of instruments that extends almost through today.

But there’s other ways to distort time. Culturally, the music of two hundred years ago is still very much with us. Who doesn’t know Beethoven’s fifth symphony (1804-1808)? The Valkyrie theme from Wagner’s eponymous opera (1851-1854) is more often a cell phone ring than an operatic war cry, Ravel’s Bolero (1930) makes its way onto television screens and even Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1926-1934) found itself in the musical mind of the late Bradley Nowell and his band Sublime. There are many more examples, but there’s a sense that when people refer to classical music, they are, in fact, referring largely to the romantic composers of the nineteenth century.

Last Friday evening’s performance was yet another reminder of the presence of this music. The longest continually performing musical ensemble in America, the Handel and Haydn Society, founded in 1815, is currently enjoying its 194th season in Boston. So maybe it’s fitting that the society undertook the works of Mendelssohn and Brahms (two composers who had yet to compose at the inception of the society), on the evening of 20 March 2009, under the leadership of principal conductor Grant Llewellyn.

The concert began with Tom Vignieri’s (born 1961) Fanfare of Voices (Ode to G.F.H.), a commission scored for drum, trumpets, choir and organ. It was confusing to hear: what was Vignieri trying to do? Was this in homage to George Fredrick Handel, (as maybe the hackneyed choral writing would suggest, interspersed with clumsy trumpet, sallow portative organ and cantankerous percussion), or a re-interpretation of baroque composition (indicated by the opening fanfare)? It was difficult to tell because balance also was an issue: choir was more often than not obfuscated by the brass, and diction was an impossibility — perhaps Vignieri’s work was scored for a different space altogether?

The concert proceeded with Mendelssohn’s brilliant Violin Concerto in e minor. It’s difficult to have asked anything more from Ilya Gringolts, making his premier with the Handel and Haydn Society, who tackled the work with a stunning clarity and exuberance. Again, balance was sometimes an issue — an over-exuberant orchestra often obscured Gringolts’s pearls-on-a-string articulation. An eager Llewellyn himself seemed to be the major issue in this particular performance. Although the livelier tempi were appropriate and negotiated with surprising ease by the orchestra for the first and last movements of the work, the second movement, in Llewellyn’s hands, raced along like a waltz rather than the stroll it was meant to be. But overall, the work was a success, not only for the orchestra, but as a spotlight as well for Gringolts.

The evening closed with Brahms’s first symphony. The work is difficult beyond all hope. After the revolutionary changes in the symphonic form by Beethoven, Brahms spent more than twenty years composing the work, synthesizing, modifying, and building on Beethoven’s significant developments in the form, and the result really is something else. Brahms’s first symphony is somehow much more mature than Beethoven’s symphonies ever manage to be, a clear advancement in the form unlike any that his contemporaries had managed.

And listening to it too, it’s somehow comforting to hear that the tradition extending back nearly a thousand years is still prospering and developing in the hands of Brahms. It’s difficult to articulate, but Brahms’s work isn’t passive. It proceeds in its narrative regardless of whether or not the audience is following, and perhaps this is the spectacle: to see a self-sustaining work driven by its own motives, independent of outside influence.

Or, at least, that’s what it’s supposed to be like. So much has been thought and said about Brahms’s work, maybe it’s become impossible to perform the first symphony. As much as listening to the work requires energy from the audience, performing it requires some sort of understanding of the work. After all, why perform such a colossus if you have nothing to say about it?

Maybe that’s my greatest concern with Friday evening’s performance. Grant Llewellyn’s performance lacked intelligence and information. Passages, whole movements, somehow seemed rushed and lackluster, not to mention under-rehearsed — the ensemble seemed to teeter on very limits of rhythmic stability. The solemnity and gravitas of the theme in the fourth movement (a melody that I first heard in the seventh grade that cemented a life-long love affair with Brahms) seemed, not the culmination of four movements previous movements, nor a response to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, Creatures of Prometheus or Eroica, nor a culmination and explication of music as the world had heard it, but an afterthought. The elegant reiterations of the melody with their intricate and insightful counterpoint were mere gasps to the crashing end.

It was disappointing to hear this sloppiness in thought and performance, laziness about intellectual rigor, and carelessness about music that is so fundamental to the Western canon. Disappointing too, on a very different level, to see the demise of the great work met with a standing ovation, although ending a concert with Brahms’s first symphony could end in no other way. But standing in the audience during the ovation, (opinions aside, rules of social decorum dictate some forms of mob behavior) it felt somehow dirty to fall prey to such a cheap trick.