If you know and love any professional classical musicians, it’s always a good idea to check in on them in December. Make sure they’re eating properly, ask if they need someone to walk the dog, offer them a cup of hot cocoa — or maybe something a little stronger. Whether it’s tinsel-strewn pops fare, Christmas concertos, or hearty old motets and wassailing songs, the holiday season is a time of many musical traditions, and those traditions need musicians to keep them alive year after year. I see you, and I salute you.
The annual performance of Handel’s “Messiah” is the largest scale, longest standing, and best known tradition that Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society offers local listeners. But no one should ignore H+H’s other holiday tradition, in which a handful of principal players (and sometimes a few guests) gather at Jordan Hall to lay out a feast of chamber music for the festive season, which is never the same year to year. This year’s soirée, directed by H&H concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky, offered all sorts of treats and a poignant touch of darkness.
With no guest stars along for the ride, the program featured a cast of 10 that showed off the best of the orchestra’s talents. Alyson Greer Espinosa led teenage singers from the H+H Youth Choruses in three a cappella carols before the house lights went down to begin the concert with Biber’s Mystery Sonata No. 3, “Nativity,” performed by Nosky and bassist Heather Miller Lardin. Each of the contemplative sonatas calls for the violin to be played in a different tuning, creating worlds of unorthodox sonic possibilities. Nosky’s “Nativity” was extroverted, but not over the top.
After the ensemble took the stage, a Vivaldi violin concerto showed more stiffness and tentative rhythms than I’m used to hearing from H+H, with Nosky’s virtuosic tricks sounding uncharacteristically shaggy. However, the good ship righted with a Concerto Grosso by Vivaldi contemporary Giuseppe Torelli, which Nosky described from the stage as “rowdy shepherds” joining the party. Brisk tempos and a thrumming bass line from cellist Guy Fishman spring-loaded the exuberance of the high strings.
Then shepherds’ pipes lit up the stage in a Telemann concerto — though Levantine shepherds circa 0 AD probably never looked or sounded so glamorous as flutist Emi Ferguson and oboist/recorder player Debra Nagy, who both ascended to their respective H+H principal’s chairs last year and seem to have developed a woodwind mind-meld in the time since then. Ferguson, a physically expressive player who excels in both the flowing and the percussive sounds of the transverse flute, was the rowdier shepherd, with her impetuous whoops sounding off against Nagy’s more steadfast recorder.
The concert’s second half offered Nagy’s mellow and nimble oboe shining through an Albinoni concerto, replete with rich textures from the backup band. In the final movement, the strings and continuo made such a mighty noise that it didn’t seem possible they only numbered eight. A set of French carol arrangements (“noëls”) by Charpentier brought Ferguson and Nagy back out as ensemble members; all of these were eminently hummable and joyful except the final one, “Nuit,” which struck a solemn, mysterious note with crunchy suspensions.
It could have ended there, but Nosky went one step further, as the house lights faded to black again for the Passacaglia that concludes the Mystery Sonatas. The melody of the solo violin’s meditation sang out over a repeating staircase of four descending notes, creating the illusion of spiraling slowly down and turning ever inward. Without darkness, there could be no light.
HANDEL + HAYDN SOCIETY
At Jordan Hall, Thursday. Repeats Sunday. www.handelandhaydn.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.