Change is brewing in Boston.
In his 13th year of effervescent music-making, the 2021-22 season marks the last for Harry Christophers leading the Handel and Haydn Society. Who will be its next artistic director? Time will tell, but every guest appearance piques interest.
Conductor Václav Luks, founder of Prague’s Collegium 1704, made his Handel and Haydn debut Friday night before a sparse but spirited crowd at a snow-encased Symphony Hall. This enthralling program converged at the nexus of discovery and rediscovery and offered deep contrast by pairing two rarely performed works — Bologne’s Overture to “L’amant Anonyme” (”The Anonymous Lover”) and Voříšek’s Symphony in D Major — with the familiar, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.
The fascinating (and, until somewhat recently, forgotten) polymath, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges is a case study in how the authors of history can silence essential voices. Born in Guadeloupe in 1745 to an enslaved Senegalese mother and a French plantation owner, Bologne became one of the first composers of African descent in classical music. In addition to composing operas and violin concertos, performing as a violinist, and founding an orchestra, he was a military officer and champion fencer. If his story sounds ripe for a biopic, there’s already one in the works: “Black Mozart,” an unfortunate nickname that diminishes his legacy.
Luks opened with the overture to Bologne’s opera “L’amant Anonyme,” a lively and charming post-Baroque jaunt. Executing turns with pinpoint precision, the conductor commanded the podium with panache, while the balanced ensemble responded gamely.
But Bologne’s overture felt too brief in a concert that lasted nearly two hours. In November 2020, amid racial reckonings across the country and the industry, LA Opera staged a critically acclaimed and diverse production of the entire opera. Bologne deserves to be the main event in Boston as well.
In highlighting “new” works, part of the challenge is a practical one: Audiences will always turn out for Beethoven, but will they show up for music that’s unfamiliar? How will classical music address its history of exclusion while working toward a more inclusive and just future? These are urgent questions, and the answers can’t come soon enough.
The Handel and Haydn Society faces a unique challenge in airing out its programming: It rarely performs music composed after 1840, which limits the pool of available works by women and composers of color. And while the organization has taken an important step toward resurrecting overlooked music by hiring the countertenor and archival explorer extraordinaire Reginald Mobley as programming consultant, there’s plenty more to do.
In a different manner of discovery, the second movement of Voříšek’s appealing symphony recalled the more famous second movement from Beethoven’s forthcoming Seventh, while the galloping Scherzo pointed ahead to Voříšek’s countryman Dvořák. Oboes blossomed skyward before the tone lurched to darker terrain, resembling silent film music. It’s all tuneful and brave, following an inner logic — and yet, with the composer’s overabundance of ideas in constant collision, one desires more room for reflection.
Among Beethoven’s nine symphonies, the Seventh lacks the branding of its brethren: the Napoleonic associations of the “Eroica” Third, the thematic infamy of the Fifth (“dah-dah-dah daahhh”), the winsome narrative of the “Pastoral” Sixth, and the ubiquitous “Ode to Joy” Ninth still plunked out by wide-eyed 9-year-olds. But given its winning demeanor, the Seventh is perhaps the most underrated of the cycle — it’s a piece musicians delight in playing.
Casual listeners likely recognized the second movement, played simply and sweetly. Luks’s fast finale sparkled with spritely woodwinds, blooming natural horns, and swashbuckling strings. His zigzagging train zipped along so quickly, it seemed it might derail at any second. Miraculously, it never did.
At its 1813 premiere in Vienna, Beethoven’s Seventh served as an exuberant communal exhalation after years of conflict. In these days of profound uncertainty, it assumes something nearly inconceivable: a banner of hope.
HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY
Václav Luks, conductor
At Symphony Hall, Friday
Jason McCool is a part-time professor of music at Boston College. He was a 2018 fellow at the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.