The Handel and Haydn Society of Boston, one of the giants among North American period instrument orchestras, offered only occasional glimpses of what they do at full strength in a concert that sought to educate as much as it came to play and whose theme bore an unmistakable, public radio, feel-good imprimatur as host Emily Marvosh introduced the concert's theme, "a program that revisits that old saying, 'Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery'" in a rich contralto voice.

Members of the Handel and Haydn Orchestra
© H+H Society

The flattering links were Corelli to Geminiani, Handel to Handel, Charles Ignatius Sancho to Jonathan Woody, and Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer to Stravinsky by way of Pergolesi. And although the music was modest in its dimensions and the imitations were pretty obvious, host Emily Marvosh, with a help of a few of the musicians, spared no pains in explaining how to listen to what was going to happen. Harpsichordist Ian Watson was instrumental in explaining how Handel turned the first few notes of a dour early G minor Harpsichord Suite into the first movement of one of his more dour Concerti grossi. The few notes cellist Guy Fishman gave a real feel for the fragility of the Baroque cello.

Violinists of the Handel and Haydn Orchestra
© H+H Society

If the well-meant discussions-demonstrations between the music were always instructive and well-meant, it was the playing that counted and the light it shone on music whether it was familiar, obscure or brand new.

This was true of an exquisite performance of Wassenaer's delightful Concerto Armonico no. 2 in B flat major, with its seductive transparent harmonic texture like Watteau applied to enchanting tunes, and to the world premiere of Jonathan Woody's Suite for String Orchestra which adroitly transformed charming songs by the 18th-century writer, politician and abolitionist Sancho (incorrectly introduced as African-American) into Baroque dances. Following on the heels of Handel in G minor, the music's simple cheerfulness and the comfortable formality of the genre made a particularly pleasing effect. The orchestra led by Aisslinn Nosky with gentle affection played with their usual meticulous attention to detail and easy sense of ensemble. The occasional grace notes and other curlicues they occasionally added, whether in Woody, Wassenaer, Handel, Corelli or Geminiani, were always to enhance the elegance and flow of the music.

Jonathan Woody
© H+H Society

As a particularly nice touch, during his conservation with the host, the composer, who is also a noted bass-baritone, was persuaded to sing a bar from one of the songs that served as a basis for the Suite.

This performance was reviewed from the Handel and Haydn Society video stream