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Music Review

Turner chooses Handel to open Emmanual season

By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / September 27, 2010

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Emmanuel Music turned a page on Friday night, beginning its fall season but also opening a new chapter under the leadership of Ryan Turner. He was named as Emmanuel’s new artistic director in March, but this concert marked the official start of Turner’s tenure. He faces the complicated task of succeeding a local legend, Craig Smith, Emmanuel Music’s founder and guiding spirit, who died in 2007.

Making that task both easier and harder is the fact that Smith was a true original, the kind of artistic leader one couldn’t imitate even if one wanted to. His singularity of vision and expansive musical personality brought a remarkable group of local singers into the orbit of Emmanuel Church. Now Turner’s task is to keep them there, to continue building the ensemble, and to make sure Emmanuel continues moving forward artistically.

Weekend concert reviews of the Boston Classical Orchestra and Peter Serkin in Rockport. Page B12.

The young conductor seems duly humbled by his new undertaking, but at least judging by Friday’s strong, well-grounded and rewarding performance, he also projects a quiet confidence and resolve. It will surely help that Turner arrives on the job with sound knowledge of the ensemble’s inner workings, having sung in its choir for over a decade. (He also serves as director of choral activities at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and recently concluded his tenure at the helm of the Concord Chorale and Chamber Orchestra.)

Given the current economy, Emmanuel’s new season is lean, with just two evening presentations compared with last year’s three, plus a chamber music series. But Turner is not playing it safe in his choices. For Friday’s opener, he selected Handel, whose music has been frequently heard at Emmanuel over the years, but next spring Turner will lead Stravinsky’s opera “The Rake’s Progress,’’ hardly standard fare for Emmanuel or any other church-based ensemble.

On Friday, the main offering was “Alexander’s Feast,’’ Handel’s setting of Dryden’s poem of 1697, which tells of Alexander the Great celebrating his defeat of the Persians. Dryden’s poem carries a subtitle, “or the Power of Music,’’ and it is that power that is both extolled here and also modeled by Handel’s own wonderfully imaginative score. Completed in 1736, the work enjoyed tremendous early success and encouraged Handel’s move toward English oratorio.

Many core Emmanuel singers were on hand Friday night, forming the handsomely blended chorus and honorably taking on various solo assignments. All of the many solo performances were articulate and full of character, often lending an intimate quality to this grandly contoured score. Among the highlights was the ringing vibrant duet sung by Roberta Anderson and Pamela Dellal.

Throughout the night, Turner projected an understated poise and sound, sincere musicianship, with the orchestral playing growing more distinctive over the course of the work, notably sharpening its focus and deepening its coloring midway through the first half, when Handel’s music itself takes on a more tragic bearing.

Heidi Braun-Hill (violin), Rafael Popper-Keizer (cello), and Roy Sansom and Roxanne Layton (recorders) all made notable solo contributions. A Concerto Grosso (HWV 318), part of Handel’s original conception of the work, rounded out the program. Some performances take on a pointedly top-down feeling; this one instead seemed an example of warmly collaborative ensemble music-making, with the Emmanuel community stepping up to welcome one of its own.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

ORCHESTRA AND CHORUS OF EMMANUEL MUSIC Ryan Turner, conductor

At: Emmanuel Church, Friday night