‘She’s a French composer from the 19th century, around the time of Beethoven,” I overheard a man explain to a well-dressed older woman entering Symphony Hall on Friday evening. It wasn’t hard to deduce that this had been a follow up to the question, “who is Louise Farrenc?”, or, “who is this composer I’ve never heard of, whose music the Handel and Haydn Society is performing tonight?”
As the classical music world scrambles to expand the common-practice-period canon beyond the standard dead white men, Farrenc—a pianist, composer, and pedagogue who was the first female professor at the Paris Conservatoire—has become one of several women whose music is belatedly getting its due acclaim. On Friday evening at Symphony Hall, the French conductor Laurence Equilbey made her H+H debut with the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra’s first ever performance of music by Farrenc, who was ten years old at the time the Handel and Haydn Society was founded in 1815.
With Insula Orchestra, the France-based period instrument ensemble she founded in 2012, Equilbey has been carrying the torch for Farrenc and other neglected women composers for several years; this past summer, Equilbey and Insula celebrated the release of an album on Warner Classics including Farrenc’s Symphonies Nos. 1 & 3. As H+H President and CEO David Snead told it in his introduction to the program book, it was Equilbey’s idea to pair Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3 with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral,” on this weekend’s H&H program.
In a historical sense, this was a prescient move. Parisian audiences of Farrenc’s era favored opera and chamber music over symphonic music, and for the Conservatoire’s orchestra, which premiered Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3, Beethoven was the undisputed king. From a present-day programming perspective, it was also smart; Beethoven’s blissful “Pastoral” symphony will fill seats no matter what’s on the other half of the program. Friday drew a respectably sized crowd to Symphony Hall, and it’s probably safe to say that Farrenc and Equilbey both have some new admirers.
The orchestra greeted Farrenc’s symphony like an old friend, with no tenuousness about it. Clarinetist Eric Hoeprich introduced the lullaby-like second movement with a languid, liquid solo; even with no programmatic images a la Beethoven, there was plenty that was pastoral about the Farrenc symphony. Concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky mustered the strings through the third movement’s twisty, speedy scherzo, interrupted by a genteel trio featuring a horn melody that had a distinct resemblance to “A-Hunting We Will Go.” The unaffected and deeply nuanced performance was perhaps the best case that could have been made for Farrenc’s full inclusion in the canon; why not a Louise Farrenc symphony instead of yet another rerun of something by Robert Schumann or Felix Mendelssohn?
If Equilbey and the orchestra treated the unfamiliar piece like a beloved chestnut, they treated Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 like something fresh and free of expectations. Equilbey’s approach was lean and unfussy, emphasizing the darker hues of the usually relentlessly sunny symphony. This was especially revelatory in the second movement, “Scene by the Brook.” Even the fullest textures were astoundingly transparent, showing off the depth and nuance of Beethoven’s orchestration. The third movement’s repetitive peasant dance often bogs down with a syrupy sheen, but Equilbey’s peasants were delightfully fleet-footed, giving the shift to cut time a raucous contrast. Timpanist Jonathan Hess conjured a violently rattling thunderstorm that made several audience members jump in their seats, before the tender hymn of the finale cast a golden light over everything. The evening ended with a surprise encore, Beethoven’s “The Ruins of Athens” overture; the duet of symphonies had felt like a complete evening on its own, but I wasn’t going to turn down a few extra minutes in the world that the group onstage had created.
HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY
Friday. At Symphony Hall. Repeats Sunday. www.handelandhaydn.org