Aisslinn Nosky wants her violin to sing. And she means that almost literally.
As the concertmaster of the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston, Nosky spends a large chunk of every late fall and early winter rehearsing and performing Handel’s “Messiah,” which the H+H have done for 166 consecutive years through wars, upheaval and pandemics. Known best for its spectacular “Hallelujah” chorus, the masterpiece spends much of its time showing off the range and glory of its vocal soloists.
“When I play the violin, I’m trying to get as close as I can to expressing what a human voice can express, Nosky said. “I am not a singer but, boy, am I ever trying to be one. When I’m playing ‘Messiah’ or any work with text, I am absolutely experiencing the text as much as I possibly can as it’s going by. I am really in it, and so with my playing I am trying to tell a story too.”
Since Handel composed “Messiah” in 1741, the oratorio has told its tale to millions. But this year, the story behind H+H’s performance is unlike any other. Due to the pandemic, the society — which is the oldest continually-performing arts organization in the United States — transformed its annual Symphony Hall concerts into a TV and online streaming event.
Called “Handel’s Messiah for Our Time,” the performance will premiere on GBH 2 on Sunday and then stream on a host of platforms including wgbh.org, classicalWCRB.org, and handelandhaydn.org. The program was recorded in a studio while closely adhering to COVID-19 protocols.
“Being farther apart from each other made it more challenging to execute the music at the high level of excellence we are used to,” Nosky said. “It’s a little harder to see someone when they are eight feet away as opposed to two feet away. It was a little daunting to be that far apart from each other but I will say that, for me personally, the energy I got from being able to make music with other people at all, the thrill of it, more than compensated for the distance. I was a little surprised that it felt that intense.”
In Symphony Hall, “Messiah” hits you like a 30-foot wave. The sheer volume of those swelling strings and booming voices crashes into every nook and cranny of the immense room. Nosky knows this won’t have that impact.
“What I heard sounded fantastic and sounded very different from last year’s version,” she said. “But I wasn’t any less excited about or moved by it. I would describe it as a ‘Messiah’ performance on a smaller scale. So the music might not be as loud because there aren’t as many of us playing. But again, the excitement and emotional content felt exactly the same to me.”
Nosky points out over the course of the life of the oratorio it has been performed with different-sized ensambles according to circumstances. Handel himself used different numbers of players and singers depending on the space he had available. This isn’t to say that Nosky isn’t looking forward to getting back in a grand hall and performing for a full crowd in 2021.
“I don’t know what the future holds but for me it will be about playing my violin wherever it’s tolerated,” she said with a laugh. “For me 2021 will be about performing as much as I can as safely as I can.”
For more info, visit handelandhaydn.org.
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