H&H Society bids Llewellyn a fond farewell
The Handel and Haydn Society has focused much of its energies of late on planning for the future, and specifically the new chapter that begins this fall when the conductor Harry Christophers assumes the reins as H&H's next artistic director. But a pair of weekend concerts in Symphony Hall proved an occasion to look back, and specifically to bid a warm farewell to Grant Llewellyn, who has had a leadership role with the organization for the last eight years, five as music director and then three as its principal conductor.
As a kind of parting gift, H&H commissioned a new work from Llewellyn's friend and colleague Tom Vignieri, a local composer and producer who served as the organization's artistic administrator from 1993 to 2003 (he is now a producer at From the Top). Vignieri's work, "Fanfare of Voices," is a setting of portions of Dryden's 1687 poem "A Song for St. Cecilia's Day." Scored for four vocal quartets, trumpets, timpani, and organ, the music takes its shape from the three notes that correspond to Handel's initials. The piece itself is modest in its scale, ambition, and impact, but it served its purpose as a well-crafted curtain-raiser for this particular occasion. Llewellyn and his forces gave it a spirited reading.
The heart of Sunday's concert was devoted to Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto (with the young Russian violinist Ilya Gringolts) and Brahms's First Symphony - music written later than the Baroque and early classical fare one typically finds on H&H programs. Whether it is repertoire best served by a period instrument orchestra is open to debate but most often the answer depends on the persuasiveness of the individual performance.
In this case Gringolts brought speed, dexterity, and a basically modern vibrato to the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto but little in the department of fresh vistas or interpretive insights. As a soloist he was frankly a strange choice for the Handel and Haydn Society. That he is a talented mainstream violinist on the rise is certain, but, even from a marketing perspective, he does not have enough name recognition to justify overlooking the many brilliant early music specialists out there who might have brought a genuinely novel and stylish approach to this chestnut of the modern violin repertoire.
The Brahms fared better with Llewellyn and the orchestra giving a performance that, if not big on textural clarity and detail, was at least fiery and exciting. The freshness here came less from ideas about tempo or phrasing, and more from the fine playing by the winds and brass that allowed one to appreciate the distinctive sonorities that a period orchestra can bring to core Romantic repertoire. And it was abundantly clear from the level of intensity and commitment in the string playing - and the warmth of the musicians' own applause afterward - that many of these players will be sad to see Llewellyn go.
He may return as a guest in future seasons but he will not be coming back next year, as the H&H management seems eager to jump with both feet into the Christophers era. One thing you will not be hearing anytime soon is a program with this Romantic flavor, as Christophers believes it's time to focus the Society's energies on the period of music defined by its namesake composers. From the perspective of improving the orchestra and chorus and making sure H&H stays competitive in an increasingly crowded early music field, his approach makes a lot of sense. The Society needs to turn the page. But in the meantime, Sunday's program allowed the players and the H&H core audience to honor a highly valued conductor who brought the group to where it is today.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.