When I spoke on Zoom with Harry Christophers in November, I asked him what he had been proudest of during his 13 years as artistic director of the Handel and Haydn Society. His answer was instant. “Oh, Haydn. Haydn,” he said with a wide grin. He had led a few symphonies and performances of “The Creation” with modern orchestras, but he had never delved deeper, he explained. “You guys have really given me the bug… I suddenly realized just what was possible.”
It’s fitting, then, that Christophers is marking the end of his tenure by drawing on both his long career of choral music and his more recently found love of Haydn, leading two of the composer’s landmark pieces for chorus and orchestra. His grand finale with the period-instrument ensemble and its chorus will be “The Creation,” Haydn’s best known oratorio, with performances scheduled on April 29 and May 1. If Friday’s performance of the shorter, smaller-scale “Theresienmesse” at Symphony Hall was an appetizer for what’s to come, the main course will likely be spectacular.
The impending blizzard combined with the continuing threat of COVID left more seats than usual vacant on Friday, and the orchestra sounded like it was flagging more than usual in the first half of the concert. The program book advertised that the performance was being recorded for commercial release, and there were several spots in Friday’s rendition of Haydn’s Symphony No. 103 (“Drum Roll”) that will need another take, particularly in the first two movements. Still, Christophers conducted with sprightly spirit, with faster passages brisk but unhurried and the slower movement stately without stuffing its shirt. The orchestra pulled off the final two movements without the flubs that peppered the first half, though a general sense of low energy still persisted.
This didn’t let up when Christophers left the stage for Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 1, which was led by soloist and concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky. The Canadian violinist recently celebrated 10 years with H&H, and she has earned a reputation for her firecracker stage presence combined with sterling technique; neither of those qualities were at their best on Friday night. After a few bum notes in the first movement, Nosky’s sound took on an unusually stiff quality. Behind her, the orchestra seemed to be driving defensively, the way one might if they realized they had gotten on the highway with a depleted tank of gas. But both orchestra and soloist were of one mind as they cautiously navigated to the double bar, and the final movement sounded more comfortable, though not entirely without tension. Everyone has off-nights, and this might have been one of them.
And it was absolutely not an off-night for the Handel and Haydn Chorus, which wove a shimmering tapestry from the “Theresienmesse.” This chorus is consistently excellent, but something had lit a special fire under them: perhaps it was the knowledge that time with Christophers is limited, combined with the touch-and-go status of so many choral performances in recent weeks due to COVID concerns. Of the “Theresienmesse” the chorus and orchestra made a brilliant tapestry, with assists from the same quartet of soloists with which H&H performed and recorded Haydn’s “Lord Nelson” Mass in January 2020. Mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers displayed a supple and strong low range that never got lost in the mix, while soprano Mary Bevan gave the highest solos a buoyant, silvery sheen, delicately sculpting the phrases of “Et incarnatus est.” Tenor Jeremy Budd and baritone Sumner Thompson provided a robust foundation for quartets and impeccable lines on their own. When Christophers’s face was briefly visible to the audience, he was beaming like a child on Christmas morning, and one could see several choristers’s faces also alight with smiles. On the whole, I have never been too enamored of Haydn’s vocal works, but a few more performances like this might make a believer of me.
H&H has revealed little about the search for Christophers’s successor, and it’s unknown who if anyone is in the running at this time. My hope is that whoever is chosen will be someone who will treat this orchestra and chorus not as their charges, but as co-conspirators. Even on an off-night, its essence persists.
HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY
Symphony Hall, Jan. 28. www.handelandhaydn.org
A.Z. Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.