At Handel and Haydn, festive ‘Fireworks’ for a bicentenary
After a long drumroll of anticipatory programming, the Handel and Haydn Society finally arrived at the official opening Friday night at Symphony Hall of its bicentennial season. On Christmas Day 1815, its singers performed their first concert in King’s Chapel. Remarkably, two centuries later, the Society is still here, and it is, deservedly, ready to celebrate.
Doing so will be a two-season affair, and will include major choral works that H&H introduced in this country, among them Haydn’s “Creation,” Mendelssohn’s “Elijah,” and Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.” With those substantial works in reserve, Friday’s concert had a more modest musical agenda. There were living statues of the Society’s namesake composers, cupcakes for all of Symphony Hall, and the announcement of a new capital campaign, all alongside a light festive program titled “Baroque Fireworks,” under the direction of Harry Christo-phers.
It began with a ceremonial flourish courtesy of the Toccata from Monteverdi’s “Orfeo,” with period trumpets positioned in the upper balconies. Each half also boasted one of Handel’s Coronation Anthems (“Zadok the Priest” and “The King Shall Rejoice”), occasions that drew some of the night’s most vibrant choral singing. At different points, the 36-voice H&H Chorus was augmented to spirited effect by the young singers from the Society’s Vocal Arts Program, one of its primary educational initiatives.
The chorus was also in fine form for Bach’s intricate motet “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied,” which came across with impressive clarity. The opening of Handel’s “Music for the Royal Fireworks” had explosive percussion in its favor but it gave way to a reading that was intermittently less focused or expressively precise, hinting at the ways in which Christophers’s chemistry with the H&H orchestra remains a work in progress.
The orchestral selection that fared best was “Summer” from Vivaldi’s “Four Seaons,” with the H&H strings turning in a vividly pictorial and palpably committed reading led by concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky, whose exploratory account of the solo line had enough charisma and flair to earn the group a spontaneous midconcert ovation of an intensity that seemed to surprise even Nosky herself.
It was also a nice touch to include Sir John Stevenson’s “They play’d, in air the trembling music floats,” performed on the inaugural 1815 program, and here given a poised and transporting account by the men of the H&H Chorus. That first concert also closed with the “Hallelujah” chorus from “Messiah,” and fittingly, Friday’s program did so too, with all of the audience on its feet joining in under Christophers’s direction, summoning not just a mighty collective noise but also evoking a proud chapter of this group’s history as a gathering place for generations of the city’s amateur singers, passionate about musical community.