The Handel and Haydn Society, which brought Handel's last oratorio "Jephtha" to Walt Disney Concert Hall on Tuesday night, is not your grandfather's H&H. Not your great-grandfather's, your great-great-grandfather's or even your great-great-great-grandfather's. At your next family séance, you would do best checking in with your great-great-great-great-granddad. H&H gave the U.S. premiere of "Jephtha" in 1850.
When founded in Boston in 1815, H&H — which describes itself as America's oldest performing arts organization in continuous existence — was a new music group. Haydn had died six years earlier and there were still people around who had heard Handel play the organ. Today's equivalent might be, say, a Copland and Cage Society.
H&H cannot, of course, escape history. For a remarkable century and a half, however, it was primarily a choral group playing a wide repertory of music, including new works. One of my more progressive UC Berkeley professors, Richard Felciano, had a piece of his given its Boston premiere by H&H in 1971.
In 1986, H&H, recognizing that Boston was becoming an early music center, appointed the British early music star Christopher Hogwood as music director, and he turned the group into a full-fledged early music ensemble that used period instruments and adapted "historically informed" performance practices. It has been headed by British early music specialists ever since. Harry Christophers, who took over in 2009, is the latest.
Still, H&H has somewhat kept up with the times. The last time the group performed in L.A. was in 1996, and that was in a production of Gluck's opera "Orfeo," directed by choreographer Mark Morris. The ensemble has commissioned a new work from Berkeley composer Gabriela Lena Frank to celebrate the anniversary.
H&H's background and that of Christophers, who formed the elegant vocal ensemble the Sixteen in England more than 30 years ago, seemed the proper credentials for a fresh "Jephtha." We need one. The oratorio has been neglected.
"Jephtha" is Handel's dark farewell, written during the onset of blindness. It is his last music, and in the dramatic oratorio, the composer struggles to accept his fate.
Jephtha is an Israeli warrior praying for victory against the warring Ammonites. He offers to sacrifice whoever or whatever he first sees when returning home if he is triumphant. He is. He sees his daughter Iphis, his only child. But a vow, Jephtha insists, is a vow.
An angel steps in, more reasonably interpreting God's will. Virginity will suffice if Iphis agrees to devote her life to religious service. She gladly does. Everybody agrees, including Iphis' fiancé, Hamor, who went to war to win her favor.
The great passages in "Jephtha" are the somberly beautiful ones that go straight to the soul. Iphis is the true angel, an innocent who teaches her hotheaded father that life isn't deeply lived without the presence of death. Jephtha's aria of acceptance, "Waft her angels," is one of Handel's most persuasively personal utterances. The choruses eschew Handelian magnificence and become vehicles for dispensing weighty communal wisdom.
Christophers can be a theatrically expressive conductor in his commanding molding of a musical phrase. But here he brought little sense of theater to the performance. The soloists stood stodgily and sang with eyes on their scores rather than each other. The well-rounded instrumental sound from period instruments and a well-rounded choral sound must have required considerable work and skill to achieve, but that did little to bring Handel's dramatic score to life.
Among the soloists, soprano Joélle Harvey, a radiantly sublime Iphis, was the most impressive. Hamor was sung by William Purefoy, a countertenor in total, if very careful, vocal control. Tenor Robert Murray offered a Jephtha better suited to lyricism than heroism, a problematic trade-off at first but not later.
The expressive veteran early music mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers was Storgè, Jephtha's wife; baritone Woodrow Bynum, Jephtha's brother, Zebul; and Teresa Wakim, the angel.
"Jephtha" is a long oratorio. Christophers made small cuts throughout and large ones in the third act, including the final celebratory chorus. That left us with no empty hallelujahs but rather a more muted "ever faithful, ever sure" from an earlier chorus as the last word. It worked, although if sung with a little less conventional beauty and a little more theatrical pizazz it would have worked better.
Maybe H&H's refined, understated performance was your grandfather's "Jephtha" after all. If so, H&H is more than a little entitled.
And solemn reflection is sure to matter most to Bostonians when H&H returns home this weekend to perform "Jephtha" not far from the recent terrorist bombings.