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Jubilee: Handel & Haydn collaboration welcomes 2017 fiercely, joyously

Celina Colby | 1/6/2017, 6 a.m.

The Handel & Haydn Society rang in the New Year with “Jubilee,” a joint performance with the Museum of African American History. The Boston Public Library’s Rabb Hall overflowed with eager listeners. The space rapidly reached capacity, causing dozens of patrons to stand outside the doors in hopes of catching some of the music.

A dynamic blend of old and new, the combined effect of music and spoken word takes the rhythmic chanting that laid the basis for many slave songs and transforms it into an ever-relevant symbol of hope and strength. Conductor Scott Allen Jarrett led Handel & Haydn musicians in traditional hymns of worship and freedom. Of course, the score also included Handel works, namely “O liberty! Thou choicest treasure,” but also interspersed a good deal of Mendelssohn and peaked at James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” printed in the program so everyone could sing along.

The music was enhanced by a moving rendition of the Emancipation Proclamation, delivered by former National Poetry Slam Champion, Regie Gibson. Gibson’s slam style has a clear musical influence and brings a powerful, modern-day punch to the traditional hymns. In his 2016 TEDx performance, Gibson enacted a piece about the importance of music in coming together and getting back to your roots. In it, he says, “This is why music and poetry calls to blood, since we came from blood.” This primal connection to sounds and music was evident not only in Gibson’s presentation but in the ecstatic engagement of the crowd.

Marita Rivero, the MAAH’s executive director, gave a short speech. Only a year into her leadership, Rivero’s success already is evident by the growth of the Jubilee. The annual concert is typically held in the African American Meeting House for a much smaller, though no less enthusiastic, crowd. This time, the crowd was more than doubled.

For those who were unable to attend, H&H and MAAH will be hosting another performance in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. on Monday, Jan. 16, at 1 p.m. in Faneuil Hall. The Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra will also be featured, led by conductor Marta Zarud.

Historically, the music of Baroque giants Handel and Haydn was performed to the white upper classes of the 18th and 19th centuries. The “Jubilee” collaboration liberates the music from aristocratic parlors and brings it to contemporary people — all contemporary people.