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MUSIC REVIEW

H&H musical director keeps this ‘Messiah’ fresh

By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / December 4, 2010

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“Like the first snow, or the winter solstice, an institution . . .’’ That’s how a critic described the Handel and Haydn Society’s performance of “Messiah.’’

Almost a century ago.

H&H’s first performance of the “Hallelujah’’ chorus took place roughly one century still earlier, at its very first concert on Christmas day in 1815.

How to keep a ritual like this one feeling fresh? That is the challenge taken up by H&H artistic director Harry Christophers, who might have assigned out these annual duties but instead has made them one of the hallmarks of his still-young tenure in Boston. Last night in Symphony Hall, a near-capacity crowd turned out for the first of H&H’s three traversals this year. They were given a rousing performance with singing full of shape, color, and yes, freshness.

Christophers’s commitment to this music is telegraphed in every gesture of his highly theatrical conducting. He sweeps and swoops balletically, tracing the music’s currents like updrafts from a canyon. It’s a style that seems to draw particularly good results from the H&H chorus, which last night sounded clear, crisp, and vital. Almost nothing from the vocal department came across without a sense of clear musical intention.

The orchestra was more often left to its own devices and still produced a generally lithe and buoyant account of the score. Two trumpets were deployed from the second balcony for “Glory to God in the highest,’’ the dramatic and scenic effect more than compensating for the imprecision that the distance seemed to impose. Timpanist John Grimes produced a precise thunder when called upon. There were a few standout moments of truly distinctive coloration and phrasing, but one wished for more.

The four British-trained soloists were all capable to strong, some more than that. The young soprano Sophie Bevan displayed impressive poise, a lovely tone, and nimble technique. Mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers saved her best singing for when it counted most: “He was despised,’’ which she delivered with remarkable eloquence and touching tenderness. Allan Clayton showed flashes of a serious tenor instrument but with a dramatic focus that tended to drift. Bass Sumner Thompson sang with warmth and good clarity, choosing elegance over visceral power in “Why do the nations.’’

The most rewarding musical moment came with the final “Amen,’’ for which Christophers drew out singing of superb suppleness and grace.

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

HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY Harry Christophers, conductor

At: Symphony Hall, last night (repeats today and tomorrow)