Is there a better way to spend a Sunday evening than with William Christie conducting “An Evening of Handel” at Carnegie Hall? The Philharmonia Orchestra of Yale and Yale Choral Artists were lucky to perform under his baton, and sounded glorious playing and singing works by il caro Sassone, Mr. Handel.

William Christie © Virgin Classics / Sylvie Mignot
William Christie
© Virgin Classics / Sylvie Mignot

Christie himself earned a degree from the Yale School of Music before emigrating to France. Since then, his imagination and intellect have helped usher in a new era of baroque music and opera revival. In recent years, Americans have been lucky to have this unique harpsichordist, conductor and musicologist back on this side of the pond. This season alone, Christie conducted a revival of his acclaimed production of Lully’s Atys at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and a new pastiche opera at the Metropolitan Opera, and he has also been active as an artist in residence at the Juilliard School.

During Sunday’s concert at Carnegie’s Zenkel Hall, Christie conducted an ensemble composed of Yale students as well as professionals. The effect of watching the eminent master return to teach students from his alma mater was charming indeed. In fact, the image smacked almost of Kapellmeister JS Bach conducting his Collegium Musicum, an ensemble composed of university students and professionals that he directed in Leipzig.

The first piece on the program was Handel’s Overture to Solomon (HWV 67). Even from the opening few bars, the students not only sounded technically impressive, but also displayed an incredible sensitivity to the style. While working with Christie certainly helped whip them into shape, in truth, the Yale students are adept at playing baroque music because the University has displayed a long-standing commitment to nurturing an awareness of “historically-informed performance.” The University’s early music faculty boasts an astounding roster of today’s leading instrumentalists and singers, who have been training these players for years.

Indeed, the Philharmonia Orchestra of Yale and Yale Choral Artists sounded more comfortable with certain stylistic elements of baroque music than some of today’s fully professional ensembles. For example, though Christie did an excellent job conducting the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra during performances of The Enchanted Island earlier this year, the orchestra did not truly do some of the music justice. Plácido Domingo, who performed as Neptune in The Enchanted Island, unapologetically sang Rameau as if it were Verdi. The extremes to which Domingo ignored basic stylistic conventions now taken for granted by younger generations of musicians were almost comical. But the Yale student musicians have grown up with different sounds in their ear, benefiting from the work that Christie and other conductors have done to enliven repertoire that was once viewed almost as a chore to play.

Handel’s Anthem for the Funeral of Queen Caroline (“The Way of Zion do Mourn”) was the centerpiece of the concert. Handel composed this beautiful anthem during a unique moment both in history and within his own career. In 1737, Handel’s opera company had been bankrupted by the Opera of Nobility – a company created for the sole purpose of dethroning him as London’s de facto king of opera. He suffered serious mental and physical problems, including a stroke, and traveled to Germany to recover. Upon returning to London, Queen Caroline, Handel’s friend and patron – not to mention, a Saxony as well – passed away.

Though often dark and mournful, the anthem also contains moments of joy and hope. No movement most easily exemplifies the contrasting emotions in the piece than the tenth movement; a chorus on the text “Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth evermore.” The piece has two parts, one for each part of the phrase. The first section, which sets the words “Their bodies are buried in peace,” is doleful. In contrast, the second phrase is exuberant in the hope for life after death. For the second movement, Christie’s arms blossomed in beautiful bold gestures, and the music rolled along in a jubilant 3/4. The theatrically bold contrasts Christie was able to effect revealed his flair for the dramatic.

The standout soloist was soprano Sherezade Panthaki – a recent graduate of the Yale School of Music and Institute of Sacred Music. Already, Panthaki has garnered praise from leading critics and gigs with some of today’s leading conductors. Male alto Eric Brenner had a nice tone, though projection was an issue.

During the second half of the program, the Yale Philharmonia Orchestra performed a lively rendition of Handel’s Concerto Grosso, Op. 6 no. 6, in G minor. Afterwards, the Yale Choral Artists returned to the stage to perform Handel’s Coronation Anthem III (“The King Shall Rejoice”). The joyous Alleluia which concludes the work was also performed as encore. During the second performance of the movement, the singers could hardly keep from laughing a bit themselves, singing Handel’s witty laughing motive on the “A” of “Alleluia,” and the audience chuckled audibly as well. Though the house was far from full that evening, everyone – in the audience and on stage – shared in a special type of collective effervescence that can occur only through the alchemy of glorious music.

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