Handel, Vivaldi favorites highlight Handel and Haydn Society’s season opener

October 9, 2021 at 12:03 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Aisslinn Nosky was the soloist for Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons in the Handel and Haydn Society’s season-opening concert Friday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

Though born into slavery, Charles Ignatius Sancho achieved a cultural legacy that eluded most free men.

After escaping oppressive servitude in Greenwich, England, Sancho (1729-1780) found refuge in the home of John Montagu, who taught him to read and write. Sancho went on to own a grocery store, vote in British elections—the first person of African descent to do so—and develop a reputation as a sharp-witted writer who supported the abolitionist cause. 

Yet Sancho’s work as a composer has remained obscure. The Handel and Haydn Society shed new light on his music in their season-opening program Friday night at Symphony Hall. 

Sancho mostly composed for light entertainment, and several of his songs and dances form the nucleus of Jonathan Woody’s Suite for Orchestra, written especially for H&H. (The orchestra premiered the work via livestream this past April).

A noted bass-baritone as well as a composer, Woody cast Sancho’s originals as a traditional collection of Baroque dances. As evidenced with this score, Sancho had a skill for memorable tunes. The melody of the Allemande flows naturally in the upper strings, the lines rising and falling like breath. The Courante is built upon a sturdy, running bass line that anchors the serene strings harmonies overhead. Sancho’s music is most affecting in the Sarabande. Passages in the minor key carry dramatic weight, while sudden shifts to the major tip the music toward the light. 

Two of the suite’s movements, however, simply feel unfinished. The Gigue, which takes on sure-footed lilt, burns itself out after a few repetitions. And the Overture does little more than set dotted figures over a harmonic vamp. Missing was the sense of tension and release that marked the other movements.

Friday night’s performance, however, revealed the Suite to be less than the sum of its parts. The main weaknesses of this work are due to Woody’s conception, which fails to utilize the colorful sonorities of the H&H orchestra. The bland orchestration places much of Sancho’s material in the strings. Oboes and bassoons too often take a back seat, offering little more that the occasional support for the principal line. Ultimately, the ten-minute work suite feels more like a quickly sketched arrangement than a fleshed-out composition.

The H&H orchestra, led by concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky, nevertheless delivered a bold and zesty reading that made the most of the suite’s slender raw material.

The rest of the program was dedicated to Baroque favorites.

Handel’s Water Music showcased the full powers of the orchestra in selections from Suite No. 1. Strings played with an enveloping warmth. Oboes and bassoons added splashes of color and the horns sounded especially grand in their featured moments.

Nosky’s assured playing and guidance wrung every ounce of energy from the Overture. The Air unfolded gracefully as undulating harmonies in the lower strings supported silvery violin lines. The Bourrée took on the verve of a village dance. The rhythms of the famous Hornpipe carried their tension between phrases, providing additional festive lilt.

Vivaldi’s Four Seasons may remain the stuff of popular classical compilation recordings and music appreciation lectures. But Nosky’s performance as soloist injected a freshness and dramatic fire to these well-trodden works.

The violinist and orchestra treated the four concertos together as a single unit, with Nosky’s original cadenzas linking each work through themes that foreshadowed what was to come. Nosky also proved an engaging actor, rendering the drunkard’s song in Autumn while humorously yawning and appearing to doze off herself. Her playing there and in other slow movements cast Vivaldi’s melodies in wide arcs, the orchestra all the while offering supple support. The players brought rustic vitality to the outer movements of Spring and Autumn. 

Winter and Summer provided the evening’s greatest technical fireworks as Nosky tossed off her runs and arpeggios with dazzling precision. The orchestra’s strings painted vivid storm scenes through colorful scratches and tremolos.

Warm applause for Nosky and the orchestra occurred before the Four Seasons performance was even over. Their rapt playing in the first movement of Winter drew an early standing ovation.

“Can I tell you how much I missed you?,” Nosky asked the audience. Multiple curtain calls and sustained cheers let her know that the listeners, happy to be back in person after the long hiatus, felt the same way.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at Symphony Hall. handelandhaydn.org

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