In my concert experience, the Mozart-era symphony has often been treated as if it were pristine, perfect, and fragile as an egg. However, from the moment that Nicholas McGegan took the podium to conduct the Handel and Haydn Society at Symphony Hall Friday night, it was evident that a more playful approach had come to visit. More than once I was tempted to pull the nearest person into a dance, so infectious was the pulse at times. Heads bobbed, feet tapped, and hands instinctively beat time as this music leapt from the instruments and crackled in the air.
After a fine appetizer of Henry Purcell’s “Come, Ye Sons of Art” and “See Nature, Rejoicing” conducted by Andrew Clark and ably sung by an energetic composite choir of high schoolers, the main event began with Mozart’s Symphony No. 36, “Linz.” The piece has been a reliable symphonic warhorse for many years, but McGegan’s treatment had it bursting out of the gate like a spirited young charger. The longtime music director of San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, McGegan is known for his vigorous interpretations. He was on form, cuing with taut, whippy style, directing the orchestra to imbue every phrase with activity and urgency. Small active silences enlivened the slower second movement’s sinewy accented gestures, and the Minuet’s colorful bursts of strings and brass were connected by a lilting trio. The finale galloped headlong through build and release after build and release, punctuated with fiery violin slurs. The audience showed their appreciation with a tradition from Mozart’s time: full-hearted applause between movements.
Excerpts from Gluck’s ballet “Don Juan” maintained a dark, foreboding air even in light moments, in constant foreshadowing of the main character’s eventual demise at the hands of the Furies. Sinister pizzicato popped under a beguiling oboe solo, and whirlwinds of strings evoked a dueling scene. A castanet-laced fandango was dispassionate, but the menacing horns and crashing gongs of the furious final movement lacked nothing.
Juan Crisóstomo de Arriaga’s Symphony in D Major is one of the composer’s only surviving works. The Basque child prodigy was referred to as the “Spanish Mozart,” composing cantatas, chamber works, and even an opera before dying at the age of 19 in 1826. The symphony utilizes a large-scale instrumental palette, and McGegan emphasized the game of contrasts, as sudden bursts erupted from smoother melodies. Rough-hewn strings and winds swelled together in the Andante and diverse colors of instruments interplayed in the Minuet. Some wind squawks and horn flubs jumped out, but these were readily forgivable in exchange for the tactile, textured musical experience offered throughout the evening.
HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY
At Symphony Hall, March 3 (repeats Sunday). 617-266-3605, www.handelandhaydn.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.