Back in 2009, when Harry Christophers first took the reins of the Handel and Haydn Society, he pledged to re-dedicate the period instrument orchestra and chorus to the music of its namesake composers. And he has been true to his word, a fact reflected in the bookends of his tenure. His first concert as artistic director, on Dec. 4, 2009, was devoted to Handel’s “Messiah.” And on Sunday afternoon in Symphony Hall, as the final concert of his tenure, he led a well-performed and moving rendition of Haydn’s “Creation.”
By almost all measures, Christophers’ span of 13 years with H&H has been a period of growth and thriving for the country’s oldest performing arts organization. He leaves a group whose artistic profile is strong, and whose financial health also appears to be robust. Numbers can tell part of this story, and in this case, they are striking: The H&H budget during the Christophers era has grown from $2.8 million to $8.5 million, and the endowment from $3 million to $25 million. Before the pandemic, ticket sales were also up 47 percent, according to an H&H spokesperson.
The group’s visibility beyond Boston has also increased, with a stack of new recordings and new performance opportunities, especially for the chorus, which Christophers has rebuilt from the ground up. Last month it made its Carnegie Hall debut performing Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. And in December it will return to the New York Philharmonic to participate in that orchestra’s “Messiah” performances under the baton of Masaaki Suzuki.
One area in which Christophers’ tenure left room for improvement was his local presence, which in recent (non-pandemic) years was down to four weeks per season. That meant his ability to establish deeper ties to the city’s broader musical community was limited, as was his time for building deeper connections within his own ensemble. H&H’s next leader would ideally commit significantly more time to Boston.
That said, Christophers’ limited local investment does not seem to have prevented the forging of a strong bond with H&H audiences. On Sunday, it was all but guaranteed that the concert would be capped by an ovation, but the afternoon also began with an earnest and palpably appreciative ovation the moment Christophers took the stage. Statements of collective gratitude don’t get much clearer than that.
Once the program began, Christophers and the musicians quickly placed on display the very qualities this crowd had no doubt been thanking them for. It boils down to a new vibrancy of expression. Over the years, Christophers has emphasized the dramatic aspects of performance, asking his choristers to not just sing the music but to show it, to allow it to inhabit them. The same goes for the orchestral players, whom he once asked to stand for an entire program in order to break away from more staid and subdued habits of body and mind. “We’re talking about making your body and your soul part of the music,” he said at the time.
Sunday’s choral singing (including that of soloist Katherine Growdon) reflected this expressive vibrancy while obtaining, at its best, a more refined level of subtlety and transparency than the group achieved in its 2015 recording of this same repertoire. Haydn’s “Creation” can be done in German or English, and Christophers chose the latter, which in turn allowed for a kind of linguistic immediacy particularly well-suited to the work’s more intimate moments. Bass-baritone Matthew Brook, excellent throughout, drew laughs (the good kind) from the audience in his extravagantly characterized recitative devoted to the earth’s “creatures numberless,” from the tawny lion to the swarming insects. Soprano Joèlle Harvey was in nimble and radiant voice, and Robert Murray’s tenor was sweet and clear. Under Christophers’ dynamic direction, the orchestral playing, distinguished especially by the limpid work of the woodwinds, had an appealing lightness of tread, a natural flow, and sense of lift.
All told, it was a fitting and celebratory send-off for a conductor who deserves the thanks he received on Sunday, as do the H&H musicians who, it’s worth remembering, are the ones who make any conductor’s vision possible. And happily, they are not going anywhere. H&H’s 2022-23 season has not yet been announced, but all eyes and ears will be on its guest conductors, many of whom will no doubt be candidates for the top post.
HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY
Harry Christophers, conductor
At: Symphony Hall, Sunday afternoon
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.