A Bicentennial For Boston's Handel And Haydn Society : Deceptive Cadence The group gave the first U.S. performance of Handel's Messiah, and still plays it today. Yet the ensemble has constantly evolved.
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A Bicentennial For Boston's Handel And Haydn Society

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A Bicentennial For Boston's Handel And Haydn Society

A Bicentennial For Boston's Handel And Haydn Society

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Boston's Handel and Haydn Society celebrates its bicentennial this season with a new recording of Handel's "Messiah." It happens to be one of the first works that they staged after it was founded nearly 200 years ago. But as Andrea Shea of member station WBUR reports, today's Handel and Haydn Society doesn't sound like it did in 1850.

ANDREA SHEA, BYLINE: Today it's all about historically informed performance, or, H.I.P, for short. The goal is to take audiences back in time so they can experience what music might've sounded like in the Baroque and Classical periods, roughly 1600 to 1830.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIES IRAE")

HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY: (Singing in foreign language).

SHEA: But the ensemble's executive director, Marie-Helene Bernard, says the European musicians who founded this society 200 years ago were interested in performing contemporary music.

MARIE-HELENE BERNARD: You have to think that in 1815 Haydn has been dead for about six years, his music is still very much in vogue in Europe, and these musicians really wanted to bring it to America.

SHEA: It took the founders almost a year to assemble their orchestra and chorus. Forty-four members signed on in April 1815. The society's first concert took place the following Christmas Day, at King's Chapel in Boston. The musicians performed excerpts from Handel's "Messiah" and Haydn's "Creation." A few years later, H and H, as it's affectionately called, played the full compositions for the first time in the U.S.

BERNARD: H and H gave the premiere of many works that are now part of the regular repertoire, but that was new in the days. First performance of Beethoven 9, Bach's "Saint Matthew Passion."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAINT MATTHEW PASSION")

HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY: (Singing in foreign language).

SHEA: For the first 100 years, the voice dominated Handel and Haydn's aesthetic. For one performance of the "Saint Matthew Passion" in 1871, the amateur chorus swelled to 700 singers. But in 1965, a single brutal review forced a major rethinking of the ensemble's direction. Boston Globe reviewer Michael Steinberg slammed the then H and H music director's pacing and what Steinberg called his neglect of Handel's intention. Jeremy Eichler is the current Globe classical music critic.

JEREMY EICHLER: What Steinberg knew was that there was this whole thing out there called the early music movement, and that it was taking shape in places like New York, where conductors like Thomas Dunn were thinking out this repertoire in entirely new ways. They were trying to figure out the numbers, how many singers were involved in these performers back in the composers' own days.

SHEA: That conductor Eichler just mentioned, Thomas Dunn, became H and H's music director in 1967. He embraced the historically informed performance idea by shrinking the chorus to about 30 professional singers. Here he is leading a Messiah concert a decade after he joined H and H.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MESSIAH")

HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY: (Singing in foreign language).

SHEA: Dunn also reduced the size of the orchestra from about 100 musicians to 32. Another big change came in 1986 when the late early music champion Christopher Hogwood took the director post. He had the musicians switch to period instruments, which Eichler says aligned with the hip trend to find a more authentic sound.

EICHLER: This impulse to try to recover something of the freshness and energy that might've been part of these performances when the music was new.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY PERFORMANCE)

SHEA: In today's Handel and Haydn Society, Robert Nairn plays a copy of a double bass built in Vienna in 1730.

ROBERT NAIRN: (Playing double bass).

It has frets, it has five strings. This is technically what's called a violoni, so it's a precursor of the double bass in some ways.

SHEA: Modern basses have four strings and no frets. Nairn's strings are made of ship gut.

NAIRN: (Playing double bass).

There's a much raspier sound, but it also has a much richer, may more high harmonics that ring off.

SHEA: Nairn also teaches at Juilliard and says he's seeing a surge of interest among his students in period music. That means there will likely be a new generation to draw from as the Handel and Haydn Society moves into its third century. The Boston Globe's Jeremy Eichler marvels at H and H and H's endurance.

EICHLER: To have been around in 1815 when James Madison was president and to be around today, it's just an organization that has lived so many lives, and when you think about them all at once, you get a sense of this sort of enormous sweep, this amazing history that does open up a really fascinating window on to the history of classic musical in Boston and the history of classical music in America.

SHEA: The Handel and Haydn Society will be celebrating its bicentennial with performances this winter, spring and fall, capped with its 401st performance of Handel's "Messiah" next holiday season. For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea in Boston.

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