Looking at Aisslinn Nosky, concertmaster for the Handel and Haydn Society’s upcoming performance of Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico concerto, you may be led to believe by her shock of vibrant purple-red hair may that you’re staring at an extra from The Warriors.
“When I was at university I was cast in a commercial for Canadian TV to play a punk violinist, and they asked if I was willing to dye my hair,” says Nosky. “Three hours later it was fluorescent pink, and I liked it.”
The Handel and Haydn Society, the “historically informed” orchestra focusing primarily on 17th through early 19th century spanning the Baroque and Classical periods (see: Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven, and the composers the society is named for, among others), is currently celebrating the fact that their 200th birthday is here, which simultaneously makes them the oldest continuously performing arts organization in America. Over the years, the society has performed at state memorial services for US Presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt alike, and one of the society’s founders and music director was none other than Lowell Mason, also known as the founder of American public school music education. Quite a pedigree, and more impressive still is the fact many of the young talent fostered in the society go on to have massive careers in their field.
“We have one of the most impressive musical education programs in the country, and I’m proud of that,” says executive director Marie-Helene Bernard. “We’re educating [talent] that 20 years from now will be leaders in their field.” That’s not just bombast either, when considering world-famous Spanish tenor Placido Domingo had one of his first gigs in the US singing with the society in the 1960’s.
Bernard adds: “What’s interesting about our history is the historical highlights with [the society] present at crucial moments in our country, with a long connection to American presidents and special occasions. And the society is lead by people who are committed to making Boston a better community, so we’re very pleased to see the bicentennial as one of the great celebrations committed to supporting arts and culture [in Boston].”
Earlier this month, H+H kicked off the milestone the way any sane collection of dedicated musicians performing with the same instruments, articulation, and techniques as was originally done in classical music’s heyday (meaning, the sweeping arpeggios and powderkeg symphonic pyrotechnics are played in the same way that ol’ Ludwig Van would’ve wanted) would do. They partied. Their season kickoff, Baroque Fireworks, displayed the groups vast range as Harry Christophers led orchestral and choral selections of Handel, Bach and Vivaldi.
As the season continues, expect more harmonic excellence. And as is par for the course with an arts organization committed to performing work on the actual instruments of the time, Nosky will be performing on a broker-procured, era-correct violin made in 1746 for the seasons second performance later this week. “It’s not something you want to buy off the street,” she jokes.
Though one of Vivaldi’s lesser-known opuses (“His music is virtuosic and explosive. A fiery, Italian temperament,” she says), L’estro armonico was a real publishing sensation in Europe, with handwritten copies of it turning up in private collections of composers it influenced at the time (see: Bach). No small feat considering these were quill-and-ink penned works of art.
“The material is as exciting and fresh today as when it was written,” she says, “and a musical roller coaster ride to perform. It really needs to be experienced live in a concert hall to be believed, and can’t be copied in any kind of recorded format, or viewed on YouTube.”
Bernard seconds the sentiment. “We live in an age of multitasking and short attention spans,” she says. “This is music that deserves your complete, undivided attention. It’s not background music. It’s to be appreciated deep down, absorbed over performances where people can let themselves get lost in the music itself.”
Nosky credits the society’s treatment of the concerto as if the ink were still fresh on the page to the newfound perspective these performances bring to timeless music.
“New members and faces admit to not knowing what to expect when first hearing it, and are surprised at how new it feels after seeing it live,” she says. “It’s a privilege to play, and comes with the responsibility of ensuring future generations will experience this music 200 years from now.”
VIVALDI L’ESTRO ARMONICO. NEC’S JORDAN HALL, 30 GAINSBOROUGH ST., BOSTON. FRI 10.31 + SUN 11.2. FOR SHOWTIMES + TICKETS, VISIT AT HANDELANDHAYDN.ORG