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On 1 May 2022, conductor Harry Christophers led his final concert with the Handel and Haydn Society (H+H) in a performance of Haydn's Creation at Boston's Symphony Hall. The concert marks the conclusion of Christophers' thirteen-year tenure with H+H, the oldest continuously performing vocal and instrumental ensemble in the United States. The concert featured soloists Joélle Harvey (soprano), Katherine Growdon (mezzo-soprano), Robert Murray (tenor) and Matthew Brook (bass-baritone) and ran for just over two hours, including an opening performance of Mykola Lysenko's Prayer for Ukraine and a twenty-minute intermission. The hall was filled to capacity with masks and COVID vaccinations required for attendance. Now in its 207th season, H+H has a history with The Creation which, according to the concert program notes by Teresa M Neff, dates back to its very inception. As Neff recounts, Part I of the oratorio was performed at the ensemble's inaugural concert on 25 December 1815, and the entire work has subsequently been performed by H+H to mark significant anniversaries throughout their history, including their bicentennial in 2015. This choice of repertoire - in the context of the ensemble's history, Christophers' departure and recent global events - thus seems to render the whole concert as a symbolic meditation on responsible stewardship for the worlds we inherit and inhabit.
The opening Lysenko Prayer for Ukraine (1885), a roughly four-minute strophic composition here arranged for orchestra and choir, was sung in Ukrainian with the original Oleksandr Konynsky text and an English translation printed on a program insert. Remarkably, the ensemble adapted their performance of this late nineteenth-century work to fit the same eighteenth-century style of instrumentation and performance techniques called for by their preparation of Haydn's Creation. The overall effect of this decision was something I found quite striking and inspiring; in addition to creating a feeling of stylistic continuity between the Lysenko and the Haydn in the concert program, it also lent to the Lysenko a certain air of poetic anachronism - a sense of an enduring Ukrainian spirit transcending time and historical epoch.
As for The Creation - here sung in English - the performance struck me as having an underlying foundation of sonic warmth, balance and restraint that served well to set up the colorful moments of drama, playfulness and humor that have helped make the oratorio so iconic. This contrast was brought out especially clearly by the soloists (both vocally and visually) and by Christophers' captivating full-body podium presence, which I would find a joy to watch even without audible results. Furthermore, every single dimension of the performance that I noticed seemed sensitively calibrated to maintain audience interest and surprise. For instance, the loudest dynamic was reserved for only a few moments over the entire span of nearly two hours (the setting of 'and there was Light' and the climax of the final chorus among them). Likewise, dramatic visuals were limited mostly to Raphael's opening aria and recitatives from the second scene of Part II, which I feel Matthew Brook employed with brilliant effectiveness.
The subliminal theme of stewardship seems all the more palpable given what the concert program tells us about Harry Christophers' relationship with both H+H and the community of greater Boston. In it we see excerpted feedback from audiences and ensemble members, announcements for H+H youth choruses and featured images of local artwork by students of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design inspired by Haydn's Creation. In addition, the Society's board chairs Robert N Shapiro and Nancy Hammer report in the program notes that Christophers had extended his tenure an additional season specifically to oversee the ensemble's transition to virtual programming during the COVID lockdown. Lastly, the printed program features a citation from Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and a certificate of recognition from Boston Mayor Michelle Wu in commemoration of Christophers' final concert. In short, it is clear that H+H - having been under Christophers' leadership - is an ensemble which actively engages with its surrounding community, elevates voices within it and around it and is deservedly recognized for so doing.
The Handel and Haydn Society's 1 May concert seems not only a fitting tribute to a respected and beloved conductor on the occasion of his retirement, but also a symbolic experience reminding us all to consider our roles as stewards of our own slice of 'creation'. While this concert marks the literal passing of a baton, I come away with the feeling that the event was filled with hints at the metaphorical batons that are passed down to us every day in our own lives. Ours is a world marred by war, an ongoing pandemic, economic hardships, environmental concerns and mounting threats upon free and open societies everywhere. Yet this concert was a celebration of possibilities in the midst of even these challenges.
Haydn's colossal testament to the wonder and surprise of the world, Lysenko's infectious love song to his homeland and a city's celebration of one of its preeminent artistic leaders - all of these are reminders of what can be accomplished when we preserve our abilities to both marvel at the world around us and invest in its prosperity.
Copyright © 8 May 2022
John Dante Prevedini,