By Sarah Bryan Miller
BOSTON — The Handel and Haydn Society has come a long way in 200 years. Founded in 1815, it was born in a figurative cultural wilderness, with the literal wilderness not too far away.
Musically speaking, there wasn’t much in Massachusetts in the year 1800 beyond the execrable singing of hymns and psalms in church. There wasn’t a single orchestra in the entire country. The interest was there, though: Singing schools were set up, so that more people learned to read music, even in rudimentary form, and standards were raised.
That led to the desire for more. On March 24, 1815, the Handel and Haydn Society was founded, its purpose “to promote the love of good music and a better performance of it.” The new group’s first performance, of excerpts from Handel’s Messiah, was with standards that seem bizarre today. The first chorus had 90 men and 10 women, and tenors sang the soprano line, all accompanied by a small orchestra and organ.
Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, H+H performed the standard oratorios — Messiah, Haydn’s The Creation” — frequently, using cast-of-hundreds choruses filled with amateur singers. (Julia Ward Howe of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” fame was a member.) The group gave the first American performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and the Mozart Requiem, among others. Standards rose.
Today, the enormous choruses are long gone; H+H has a relatively small professional chorus and, since 1986, has maintained a period instrument orchestra and historically informed style. Standards are high by any measure.
On March 27, H+H observed the 200th anniversary of its founding with a memorable performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion here Symphony Hall. It was an appropriate choice, both for a weekend late in the season of Lent, and because H+H gave the first complete American performance of the work on Good Friday in April 1879.
Artistic director Harry Christophers led a total of 80 professional musicians — six soloists, a double choir totaling 34 singers, and 40 instrumentalists — along with an excellent group of student choristers from H+H’s Vocal Arts Program.
Those forces, similar to what Bach would have used, enabled Christophers to lead a nimble performance in the historically informed style, generally zippy (but occasionally too zippy) and almost always engaging.
Some things went by a little too fast for comfort, like the chorale “Ich bins, ich sollte büßen (It is I, I should atone),” and Jesus’ words of institution, the beginnings of the Christian sacrament of Holy Communion “Trinket alle daraus (Drink, all of you, from this).” In the second half, the great chorale “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” (“Salve caput cruentatum” in the original Latin and “O Sacred Head sore wounded” in English”) needed to breathe far more than Christophers allowed. Still, the majority of the tempos felt right.
The soloists were solid. The Evangelist, tenor Joshua Ellicott, gave an unusually dramatic reading, even launching himself out of his chair at one point as he began to sing, to great effect. He has a beautiful voice, intelligently used, and he helped to shape the overall performance in a positive way.
Roderick Williams was an elegant Jesus, with a warm, smooth baritone. His serene performance worked for most of the piece, but he could have used a little more of Ellicott’s passion; he seemed a little laid back at some serious moments.
Soprano Joélle Harvey has a lovely limpid tone; it’s a good voice for Baroque music, and she communicated well. Mezzo-soprano Anna Stéphany displayed a rich, dark voice; sometimes it sounded as though she might be making it artificially darker than it is naturally. Tenor Matthew Long offered a clear, bright sound in his arias; baritone Sumner Thompson sang and communicated well.
It was a bit disconcerting to discover that all the soloists but Thompson were British imports. Surely there was sufficient high-quality American talent available to fill more of those spots, and surely Christophers, in the six years since his appointment as artistic director, has had the opportunity to become acquainted with some of them.
But the chorus was first-rate and extremely well prepared by Christophers. In a Passion oratorio, the soloists and chorus are there primarily to offer theological reflections and, in the case of the latter, to provide the voice of the crowd, and they did it all admirably, following Christophers’s lead and Bach’s spirit. The smaller roles, like the maids, came from the chorus, and were all well done.
The band was terrific, embodying the best of historically informed performance. Concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky, magenta-haired and extravagant in her gestures, played superbly in her solo moments, particularly so in her duet with Stéphany, “Erbarme dich.”
Most of the other instrumental solos were very well executed, although Laura Jeppesen, on viola da gamba, had trouble at times with articulation and tuning. But a few scrappy moments didn’t really injure the overwhelmingly positive arc of the performance.
Sarah Bryan Miller is the classical music critic of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.