Since long before “TÁR,” there has been a tradition of skepticism about conductors — not as individuals per se but as a species within a larger taxonomy of power. In his 1960 book “Crowds and Power,” Elias Canetti described the orchestral conductor as a kind of Great Dictator figure, knowing all, seeing all, hearing all, both a giver of laws and the “living embodiment” of the music being performed.
His description raises an interesting question: If on some level, whether conscious or unconscious, the conductor is indeed viewed by both the musicians and the audience as the embodiment of the music, who then embodies the music at orchestral performances without a conductor? Within the frame of this metaphor at least, the answer would have to be the orchestra itself.
In short: With certain repertoire where self-direction is eminently possible, boot the guy with a stick (and it is still with great frequency a guy) and the performance is suddenly democratized, with individual musicians stepping up to take charge of its realization with a sense of agency and ownership simply unavailable when a maestro is towering over them. They are also forced to listen to each other with an added intensity that, in the best cases, can transfer across the footlights to the audience, bringing an entirely different valence to a performance, and certainly a notable uptick in the joyfulness of the music-making. The conductorless chamber orchestra A Far Cry makes this clear in every performance. And on Sunday in Symphony Hall, the Handel and Haydn Society, performing without a conductor, reinforced this truth in a spirited and all-around excellent account of works by Mozart, Beethoven, and Marianna Martines.
The last of the three will be an unfamiliar name to most. Martines (1744-1812) was a keyboard player, vocalist, and composer born in 18th-century Vienna, right at the center of the action. She was tutored in composition by Haydn and once played a piano duo with Mozart. That her music is only now starting to be performed says less about her art than about how history has been written and canons consolidated. On Sunday, H&H gave her Sinfonia in C Major, one of her approximately 65 known compositions, a persuasive reading. The overall buoyancy and rhythmic elan of the outer movements, marked Allegro con spirito, and Allegro spiritoso respectively, made one keen to hear more of her work.
Next up was Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 2, with H&H concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky as soloist. In truth, Nosky was also credited as director of this entire program, though for two of the three works, she led from within the ensemble through her own gesturally articulate playing. For the Mozart she led as soloist, standing in front of the orchestra.
Her performance was recorded, and the Second was in fact the last of a now-complete recording project devoted to all five Mozart Violin Concertos. This work may not be the most dazzling of Mozart’s set but Nosky brought out the lyrical charms and rich vein of melody in its slow movement. In the brisker outer movements, her lithe and nimble playing demonstrated once more her winning, animated grasp of period style.
The night concluded with a satisfyingly fresh account of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1. With Nosky back leading from the concertmaster chair, the group played with coherence, commitment, and verve. There was a welcome tanginess in the woodwind sonorities throughout the work, and a galvanizing sense of rhythmic vigor in the Minuet. Would these players have “owned” this performance in the same way had a conductor been standing in front of them? It’s impossible to know, but somehow I doubt it.
If any reservations were to be voiced about Sunday’s program, they would concern the overall fit between music and space. It is a source of abiding irony when period-instrument orchestras such as H&H assiduously pursue all manner of historical accuracy, with period bows, period strings, and the like, all the while performing classical-era works in a hall built much later, and scaled to accommodate a much larger modern symphony orchestra. When sitting somewhat far from the stage, the sound produced on these occasions can feel distant, the intensity diminished, the details less crisp. A 10-year-old girl sitting next to me on Sunday reported this was her very first concert. I hope she comes back one day to hear the same ensemble in Jordan Hall.
HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY
Aisslinn Nosky, director and soloist
At: Symphony Hall, Sunday afternoon