Marketing efforts underway at the Handel and Haydn Society appear to be working, as Symphony Hall was impressively full on Sunday afternoon for a matinee concert with neither guest conductor nor guest soloist on the program. The ensemble instead tapped leaders from its own ranks: Concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky directed the program, and on the second half, she joined two H&H colleagues to form the triumvirate of soloists required for Beethoven’s Triple Concerto.
The afternoon opened with the Overture to “L’amant anonyme” by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a fascinating 18th-century figure whose life has been the subject of a biopic rather infelicitously titled “Le Mozart Noir.” He was among the first classical composers of African descent as well as a violinist, an orchestra leader, and a renowned swordsman. The overture presented on Sunday caught the ear with its rhythmic drive and graceful melodic contours. As is presumably the goal by including a brief work like this one, it left you eager to hear more.
The piece was presented in the context of what we could call a roughly contemporary score — but what a contemporary score! Mozart’s great G-minor Symphony (No. 40) has a way of making everything around it sound pedestrian by comparison. On Sunday the piece was given a lithe and lively account, one that pointed up dynamic contrasts in the outer movements. Interestingly, this reading was also something of an experiment in performance practice, as the H&H orchestra has been trying a new way of approaching the antiphonal layout of its violins.
Specifically, on Sunday the first violins were placed along the right side of the stage, where the seconds typically reside. Speaking to the audience, Nosky noted the benefits of this seating for ensemble sightlines. That makes good sense, so I’m sorry to report that it was pretty much the only benefit this listener discerned. The first violins of course have extremely prominent parts in the music of the Baroque and classical era, the scores at the heart of H&H’s repertoire. Yet, acoustically speaking, this new seating angles their F-holes (and their sound) toward the back of the stage, thereby skewing balances. And visually speaking, it means the first violins are playing largely with their backs to the audience. This is not an ideal combination, especially in Symphony Hall.
Part of the challenge hovering in the background here is that all period groups, H&H included, very intentionally perform on older style instruments and use older style gut strings, mostly driven by the notion that these are the instruments for which this music was originally written. But here’s the problem: Symphony Hall itself is not a period venue — it is far larger than the halls in which this music, on these instruments, was first played. This tension returned to mind during Sunday’s account of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, where, at least from my seat, many subtleties on the fortepiano (played by Ian Watson) were all but inaudible, and the afternoon’s cellist (Guy Fishman) also at times struggled to be heard. That said, the dynamism and warm rapport of this trio of soloists were unmistakable, and, when paired with this score’s winning combination of extroverted grandeur and conversational charm, this performance clearly hit its mark. Sunday’s grateful audience was quick to its feet.
Handel and Haydn Society
At Symphony Hall, Sunday afternoonJeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.