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Classical Notes

Handel and Haydn Society aims to raise profile with new season

Artistic director Harry Christophers at a 2015 H&H concert. Gretjen Helene

As it announces its 2016-17 season, the Handel and Haydn Society stands at a sort of crossroads. Its previous and current seasons have been a sort of extended victory lap celebrating the Society’s bicentennial, by any standard a remarkable achievement. With the retrospective almost complete, and with a new administrative leader in place, the question H&H now faces is what kind of organization it wants to be as it begins its third century.

To judge from next season’s offerings, H&H intends largely to keep faith with the core of its mission — revivifying the Baroque and Classical works that are its focus — while modestly enlarging its repertoire. Harry Christophers will open his eighth season as artistic director on Sept. 23 and 25 with a Bach-heavy program that includes the composer’s “Magnificat” and the first H&H performances of Cantata 149, “Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg.” He will close it with two performances of Handel’s “Semele,” the latest in Christophers’s sequence of Handel oratorios (May 5 and 7, 2017).


Elsewhere he leads a Haydn and Mozart program featuring concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky (Jan. 27 and 29, 2017) that will be recorded for future release, as well as the Society’s first performances since 2003 of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 (April 7 and 9, 2017). The annual performances of Handel’s “Messiah” are scheduled for Nov. 25-27.

Among guest artists, none is more noteworthy than Nicholas McGegan, music director of the San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, who makes his H&H podium debut (March 3 and 5, 2017) in a program of rarities by Gluck and Juan Crisostomo de Arriaga, as well as Mozart’s “Linz” Symphony.

David Snead, the Society’s new president and CEO.Gretjen Helene

Richard Egarr, who leads performances of Beethoven’s “Pastorale” Symphony next weekend, will continue his Beethoven cycle next season with the “Eroica,” paired with Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony (Oct. 28 and 30). Nosky and H&H organist Ian Watson each lead a Baroque program, Nosky’s of Italian concertos (Feb. 10 and 12, 2017), Watson’s the Bach Christmas concerts (Dec. 15 and 18).


David Snead, the Society’s new president and CEO, said in an interview that while tradition and continuity dominate the 2016-17 programs — the Handel and Beethoven cycles, the 163rd annual performances of “Messiah” — that point was balanced by about a third of the pieces on next seasons’ programs being new to H&H’s repertoire. Others have not been performed in several years; the “Linz,” one of Mozart’s final six symphonies, for instance, has not been played since 1992.

“People will sometimes say, ‘Why aren’t you doing new stuff?’” said Snead, who noted that the Society premiered a new work by Gabriela Lena Frank last year. “I think there’s a whole lot of adventure and discovery and exploration that’s happening within the Baroque and Classical period at H&H. There’s a freshness to the season, a sense of adventure, as well as this combination of digging deeper into [certain] wells.”

Snead, who succeeded Marie-Hélène Bernard when the latter moved to the St. Louis Symphony, came to H&H after 14 years at the New York Philharmonic. He was impressed not only by the artistic quality of the ensemble — “To my ears, they do what they do every bit as well as the Philharmonic does what they do” — but by the depth of its educational and outreach programs. One of his chief goals is to make the group more visible on both the national and international stages. He’s also anxious to put into practice his own concepts of how arts organizations create and maintain relevance in their communities.


Part of that, he said, consists in “changing the way we talk about ourselves: from saying, ‘We’re playing period instruments because we want to do it’ to ‘We’re playing period instruments because of what it does for you as a listener in the audience.’ It really brings you back to when this music was brand new, right off the page. So when we talk about ourselves, effectively, in terms of creating relevance, it’s saying why that matters, what it means to you as a concertgoer, how it makes the music more electric and exciting.”

Christophers, speaking by phone from his home near London, agreed that the time had come for H&H to raise its profile: not only abroad, but even in Boston. “There are still people who, when they read about H&H and read that it’s a historically informed orchestra, they think, ‘Gosh, that sounds very academic, or something that should be in an antique shop,’ ” he said. “We want them to experience the vibrancy of the way period orchestras play, and particularly H&H. They come to a performance and they see and feel the orchestra and chorus coming alive to them.”

While other organizations scramble to enhance concerts through extramusical means, Christophers said, the works H&H plays offer enhancements of their own. “People who come to [our] concerts, they go out of ‘Messiah’ feeling inspired, or if it’s [Bach’s] ‘St. Matthew Passion,’ something of great hope. We’ve done something to them, we’ve stirred something in their emotions. And that for me is what it’s all about.”


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