When the Handel and Haydn Society was founded in 1815, Haydn had died only a few years earlier. The group later corresponded with Beethoven to request an oratorio. H&H’s mission in its earliest days was, in other words, not only to curate music of a distant past, but also to engage with an art that was still new.
As the organization planned this season’s bicentennial celebrations, it was a great idea to honor this fact by commissioning a new work. On Thursday night in Symphony Hall, Gabriela Lena Frank’s “My Angel, his name is freedom” received its premiere as part of an eclectic and well-sung choral program of works by Handel (music from “Messiah”), Bach, and others, performed under the direction of Harry Christophers. The night also included performances by the fine young singers of H&H’s Vocal Arts Program.
Frank was something of an outside-the-box choice for this assignment, which might have easily gone to a composer more closely aligned with older liturgical traditions in the manner of James MacMillan, whose “O Radiant Dawn” also appeared on this program and sat with minimal friction between two 16th-century motets by Palestrina. Frank, by contrast, draws inspiration chiefly from Bartok, and embraces a more polyglot and disjunct modern sound world, informed by her own family heritage with its links to South America, Asia, and Eastern Europe.
For her H&H work, a co-commission with the Library of Congress, Frank set lines taken from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Boston Hymn,” a Civil War-era poem that extols the end of slavery in the lofty, fervid language of the Transcendentalists. Scored for chorus and string quintet, the piece begins with an extended introduction for the strings alone. The music is taut and involving, with angular lines and pungent, darkly colored harmonies. One by one, the solo instruments break through the ensemble texture with short but impassioned recitative-like statements marked in the score as “earnest.” One can imagine Frank aiming to capture some of the moral fire that underlies her chosen text.
Frank’s writing for the chorus here is clear and effective, with certain words repeated for emphasis. On Thursday, the diction of the H&H chorus was so vivid as to render the printed text almost unnecessary, and an excellent quintet of H&H string players gave the work an incisive, vigorous first performance.
All of this said, given how rare it is for H&H to have a commissioned premiere, the Society could have taken more care in presenting this one, by scheduling more than one local performance, and by printing a proper program note. Such a note would surely have mentioned that “Boston Hymn” was first read by Emerson himself on the stage of the Boston Music Hall at an 1863 concert conducted by Carl Zerrahn, a towering figure in the early history of — you guessed it — the Handel and Haydn Society. But the real test of any organization’s commitment to its own commissions is whether, in addition to a splashy first performance, the work is taken up again in the seasons ahead.
HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY
Harry Christophers, conductor
At: Symphony Hall, Thursday
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremy_eichler.