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Handel & Haydn season starts strongly under Hogwood baton

Last year Christopher Hogwood, the English conductor and recording star, established a musical foothold in America by signing on as artistic director of Boston's Handel & Haydn Society. After a summer break, he has returned this week to the society's podium, conducting a Mozart concert that isn't just exhilarating to hear but is, conversely, symptomatic of the reasons his brief tenure has been controversial. For Hogwood is using not only his considerable charm and talent to revitalize the H&H, but an unabashedly populist approach some Bostonians hadn't counted on.

At the Tuesday concert, for instance, a program consisting of the ``Gran Partita'' and the Requiem - works popularized in the movie ``Amadeus'' - Mr. Hogwood enlisted actor Thomas Derrah to read excerpts from the composer's letters between movements of the ``Partita,'' a diversion designed to counteract the play's ``historic chicanery,'' Hogwood told the audience at Symphony Hall.

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Then there's the fourth concert of the current season (Jan. 14 and 17), which will include a performance by jazz pianist Keith Jarrett of Mozart's Piano Concerto in C (K. 467) - the hit theme from the movie ``Elvira Madigan.''

Well, who ever said classical music couldn't be fun? And besides, H&H is offering plenty of works this season that weren't sound tracks.

But Tuesday's concert also echoed some of the more serious criticisms of Hogwood, who was known internationally as founder/conductor of the Academy of Ancient Music before he added the H&H mantle. Critics have charged that the conductor's live performances with the academy and other orchestras don't live up to his recordings, because of a too hectic performance schedule coupled with a not-fully-developed conducting technique. They also credit the talented musicians with whom Hogwood has surrounded himself for part of his success.

In this week's concert, one could find some evidence to support such views. For the ``Partita'' (K. 361), Hogwood enlisted the Amadeus Winds, an exceptionally skilled period-instrument ensemble. The balance, tone, synchronization, and expressiveness were nearly flawless, even at Hogwood's characteristically brisk tempos. But one got the feeling his workmanlike cueing and beating of the music's pulse didn't really coax much from the ensemble that it wouldn't have given without a conductor.

In the Requiem (K. 626), which Hogwood has recorded with the academy, however, he looked like a totally different conductor - animated, expressive, and fully attuned to each musical nuance. The chorus's vibrant tone and precise diction never flagged. Voices and instruments remained in near-perfect balance. Soprano Sylvia McNair and tenor Jon Garrison shone in the work's several solo and quartet passages. Mezzo-soprano Catherine Robbin and baritone David Evitts didn't cut through the loud passages quite as effectively as the higher voices, but their singing was polished and assured. The dynamic range of the ensemble was a wonder to behold, and partial credit goes to H&H assistant conductor Jeffrey Rink.

Is Hogwood seriously flawed, then, as his detractors charge? Undoubtedly he has room to keep growing, but H&H is already benefiting not only from concerts like this one (being repeated tomorrow at 8 p.m.) but several other developments: a significant increase in this year's subscriptions and donations; a $100,000 challenge grant awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts; and the signing of a new London Records contract.

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