On paper, Friday's Handel and Haydn Society program looked like a Baroque version of a Pops concert: Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks" and the third suite from "Water Music," Bach's Third Orchestral Suite, and a sequence of orchestral music from Purcell's opera "The Fairy Queen." Yet what at first glance promised only a hit parade of familiar favorites wound up delivering a richer than expected, multidimensional portrait of the Baroque.
In a program note, guest conductor Harry Christophers called the Baroque "that hedonistic epoch." It was a helpful reminder of the earthy, less refined side of an era that's too often misremembered as being all about courtliness and propriety, one where music was expected to be at least as much entertainment as art.
The "Water Music" suite and the Bach made for an elegant, if slightly staid, first half. Both were deftly paced and gracefully executed, and Christophers kept the rhythms and textures light. Bach's famous "Air" - better known as the "Air on the G String" - sounded affecting without being micromanaged into sentimentality. Yet there was a spark of vitality missing throughout both works.
More diverse fare was on tap for the second half. Handel's "Fireworks" music was its magnificently boisterous, noisy self. This music is largely about its own sound, and hearing its waves of gleaming trumpets and martial percussion, it was easy to appreciate the Baroque's affection for spectacle and pomposity.
But the Purcell was the evening's most varied and successful entry. In this glorious sequence of dances one could hear the composer's entire imaginative world open up, alternately graceful and convivial. "The Fairy Queen" is loosely based on "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and, like Shakespeare's comedy, the music can be appreciated on a variety of levels. At one turn, its vivid scoring and unusual harmonies grab the ear, its buoyant and danceable rhythms at another. Here was the closest the program came to a complete Baroque entertainment.
The H&H orchestra was at the top of its game throughout the evening, the trumpets turning in especially dazzling performances. Rather than beat time, Christophers conducted in broad, dramatic gestures as he stalked the front of the stage, eagerly awaiting the next long line to draw out. His direction was simultaneously casual and deeply engaged, and an entertainment in its own right.