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MUSIC REVIEW

Artistic director Jonathan Cohen picks up the banner for H+H’s annual ‘Messiah’

The ensemble has performed Handel’s classic oratorio around Christmas every year since 1854

Countertenor soloist John Holiday and soprano soloist Joélle Harvey performing with artistic director Jonathan Cohen and the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra and Chorus in Handel's "Messiah" at Symphony Hall, Nov. 24, 2023.Robert Torres

For an ensemble that focuses almost exclusively on old music, the Handel and Haydn Society has proven itself quite willing, even eager, to challenge existing conventions of what music to play and how to play it. However, there’s one point on H+H’s calendar where tradition trumps all: “Messiah” season. H+H and Handel’s “Messiah” have been intertwined now for over two centuries. As the program book announced, the society’s first concert in 1815 included a few numbers, and H+H has presented the oratorio during the Christmas season every year since 1854.

However, within that tradition, no two years are exactly the same, and just as the 2023-24 season represents a significant change — the arrival of new artistic director Jonathan Cohen — so, too, does this year’s “Messiah.” Since the ensemble is so closely associated with “Messiah,” it would have seemed strange if Cohen hadn’t led it in his debut season. In that sense, the 2023 “Messiah” already stood to be not just another notch on the running 170-year tally of holiday performances, but a possible augur of the years to come under new artistic leadership. Welcome to town, Jonny. No pressure!

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Messing with “Messiah” even a little bit feels seismic, and one change was apparent as soon as the program book was opened. Usually the intermission goes at the end of Part the First, a natural if somewhat ungainly place to put it, since it makes the concert’s back half (which typically includes Parts the Second and Third, with maybe a short pause) much longer than the front. Cohen placed the intermission in the middle of Part the Second, after the chorus “All we like sheep have gone astray,” sending the audience into intermission on a liturgical cliffhanger rather than the anticlimactic but gentler “His yoke is easy, and his burthen is light.” The change felt a little jarring but in the end didn’t detract, and the second half didn’t sag where it often does.

Aside from the timing of the intermission, Cohen’s directorial touch was delicate, perhaps not desiring to significantly alter what has been proven to work. He conducted from an Allan Winkler harpsichord, here sitting down and there springing up, intermittently joining in alongside keyboardist Ian Watson.

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Handel and Haydn Society artistic director Jonathan Cohen leading Handel's "Messiah" at Symphony Hall, Nov. 24, 2023. Robert Torres

The choruses were unhurried without dragging, and the clear harmonies of the H+H Chorus shone. Expression was never sacrificed for the sake of speed in busy fugues such as “For unto us a child is born.” One could imagine exclamation points written in the score after the proclamations of Jesus’s many names (“Wonderful! Counselor!”). The orchestra was also excellent, full of the vibrancy that regular H+H listeners have become accustomed to.

There’s no use debating which of the vocal soloists has the toughest job in “Messiah.” The oratorio hands them each at least one technically and expressively tricky aria that could be an Olympic event in their voice parts; and because the piece is so well known, most of the audience will know if they mess up. (Again, no pressure.)

What’s more, by Sunday of H+H’s “Messiah” weekend, every performer has spent approximately nine of the past 48 hours on stage, so it’s natural that everyone is a bit worn out. At several junctures during the arias, it seemed Cohen was conducting for the voices he’d planned to have on stage rather than adapting to those he actually had. However, there wasn’t much he could have done in the case of bass-baritone José Coca Loza, whose voice was too slender to rise above the orchestra for more than a second at a time. If anyone woke up during “The trumpet shall sound,” it was entirely thanks to principal trumpet Perry Sutton, who pulled off the obbligato with aplomb.

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Welcoming the audience with “Comfort ye, my people” tenor Stuart Jackson was comfort personified. His warm voice evoked the feeling of drinking hot buttered rum after coming in from the cold. In the slower solos he was superb, but he stumbled slightly in the gauntlet of “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted,” just as almost every tenor does. Nonetheless, it was a performance to take pride in. Soprano Joélle Harvey, an H+H veteran, added winsome Mozartean sparkle to “Rejoice greatly” and “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” Countertenor John Holiday’s afternoon had a few rough patches, but he covered for that with his hauntingly reedy timbre, a stunningly beautiful “He was despised,” and enough raw charisma to fill Symphony Hall twice over.

HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY

Nov. 26. Symphony Hall. www.handelandhaydn.org


A.Z. Madonna can be reached at az.madonna@globe.com. Follow her @knitandlisten.