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Handel and Haydn Society steps confidently into a new era

Jonathan Cohen led Handel and Hadyn in a season-opening program of Bach on Friday, Oct. 10.Sam Brewer

When last seen on the Symphony Hall stage in May, the Handel and Haydn Society was closing out the 13-year artistic directorship of Harry Christophers with a performance of Haydn’s oratorio “The Creation.” Christophers is credited with reviving H&H and giving it a new sense of direction that included refocusing the organization’s attention on the music of its two namesakes. At their best, his performances swung with joy, even elation.

So — what now?

That’s the question H&H faces as it embarks on its 208th season amid a search for its next artistic leader. Transitions like these can be destabilizing for a musical organization, especially when they follow long and successful terms like Christophers’.


Happily, though, there was nothing tentative or unsteady about Friday’s opening night concert, which brimmed with confidence and a high level of musicianship. It helped that the program was made up almost exclusively of Bach — not only a composer at the center of H&H’s activity but one whose music often carries a directness of expression sufficient to overcome virtually all uncertainty.

The veteran conductor Bernard Labadie was to have conducted but withdrew because of health issues. In his place was Jonathan Cohen, who leads early music groups in the UK and Europe. This was his third H&H engagement, and he made an exceptionally strong impression throughout: Leading from the harpsichord and seeming to conduct with the entire upper half of his body, he largely eschewed time beating in favor of sharp gestures that elicited equally vivid results from the orchestra and chorus.

The program was somewhat oddly shaped, beginning with the somber Cantata No. 61, “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland,” rather than the more celebratory Orchestra Suite No. 3, which followed. Cohen established a template that would hold true throughout the evening — crisp rhythms, clear textures, and a precisely maintained balance between the orchestra and chorus. The three vocal soloists were all strong, two of them especially so: Lauren Snouffer, whose soprano was sleek and radiant, and bass-baritone Michael Sumuel, who sang with remarkably unforced power and depth. Tenor Andrew Haji’s voice had an appealing sweetness in its high and middle registers, though he struggled somewhat to be heard at the bottom.


Lauren Snouffer and Michael Sumuel performed with Handel and Hadyn on opening night.Sam Brewer

The Third Orchestral Suite lacked some incisiveness and rhythmic definition early on, though it built to an exciting finale. The Air movement — popularized as the “Air on a G String” — offered listeners a break from all the lucid surfaces to luxuriate in the sonic richness the H&H orchestra can produce.

The one non-Bach item on the program was a brief cantata by Buxtehude, a composer Bach admired and famously walked 250 miles to hear play the organ. The inclusion of his brief cantata “Der Herr ist mit mir” honored the debt owed by Bach to the older composer, Cohen said from the stage. It also made for a useful stylistic contrast: The music exudes solidity and confidence but is also much simpler — rhythmically, harmonically, and most other ways — and less mysterious than Bach’s. It did, however, offer another chance to admire the chorus’s potently unified singing.

Two more Bach cantatas rounded out the program: No. 140, “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme,” and No. 191, “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” The former, an elaboration of the biblical parable of the 10 bridesmaids, is among the most inventive of Bach’s sacred music, and one of the evening’s highlights was the duet aria between the soprano (as the soul) and baritone (as Jesus), sung with melting beauty by Snouffer and Sumuel. Associate concertmaster Christina Day Martinson played the piccolo violin accompaniment with subtle brilliance.


“Gloria in excelsis Deo” is more modestly scaled and contains music more familiar today as excerpts from the Mass in B Minor. But it left just as strong an impression for the opportunity to enjoy Cohen’s expert direction and the chorus’s execution: The pacing, playing, and singing of the outer movements were a marvel. H&H should consider having him back to conduct the entire Mass.

There was a brief encore: The famous chorale from Cantata No. 147, better known as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” The continuo group — cellist Guy Fishman and organist Ian Watson — did yeoman work throughout the program. Whatever uncertainties may lie ahead in this interim period, H&H seems, for now, to be in excellent shape.


Jonathan Cohen conductor. At Symphony Hall, Friday (repeats Sunday)

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.