Boston's oldest musical resident

Harry Christophers and the Handel & Haydn Society (photo: Stu Rosner 2007)Harry Christophers and the Handel & Haydn Society (photo: Stu Rosner 2007)

Question: which is America’s oldest continuously active music institution?

 Clue: it’s not one of the most famous. It’s not even the most famous in its own city. Think of Boston and, in music terms, you think immediately of the glitzy symphony orchestra with its big-name music director James Levine, then of Tanglewood, the BSO’s famous summer festival home a little way outside of town. But did you know that the founding of that orchestra was inspired by the now comparatively little-known Handel & Haydn Society?

“BSO founder Henry Lee Higginson was on our board and left in 1881 to found the new orchestra,” says H&H Society executive director Marie-Hélène Bernard. “He said that Boston needed a great orchestra as it already had a great choral society.” By that time, in fact, H&H was already something of a veteran on the American music scene, a venerable sexagenarian.

Started in 1815, H&H was created by the city’s merchants to bring the music of (you guessed it) Handel and Haydn to the US. And this they did, in some style, presenting the American or world premieres of many works, among them Handel’s Messiah and Israel In Egypt, as well as Haydn’s The Seasons and The Creation. And there was plenty more – US premieres of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, Verdi’s Requiem and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The “Handel & Haydn” tag was never meant to restrict the society to those two composers. It was nothing less than a fully-fledged credo, a statement of intent – that this new choral institution would excavate the old (Handel) along with the new and cutting-edge (Haydn, who in 1815 had only been dead some six years).

If it cannot be said that H&H has consistently fulfilled the latter brief as well as the former, by which I mean that the Handel to Haydn line has been rather better served than contemporary composers, the society still commissions new works. But the run-up to its bicentennial celebrations in five years’ time has seen a newcomer of a different kind, with the arrival as music director of British conductor Harry Christophers.

Christophers has worked wonders in his native UK with his group The Sixteen – pulling off the elusive feat of mixing often obscure repertoire with genuine populist appeal. He has also built up a fine catalogue of recordings, an area which Bernard is keen to see developed in Boston, and The Sixteen’s own label, Coro, is coming with Christophers to help deliver on that front.

“We’ve been inconsistent with recordings,” she says, noting that the last two were issued by Avie in 2003 and 2005 under then-chief conductor Grant Llewellyn, “and that’s often been driven by funding issues. But we’re determined now that recordings should just be part of what we do, and we’ll just make that happen”. So the focus, at least to begin with, will be on core works of the choral repertoire: September, or thereabouts, will see the release of the Mozart C minor Mass, with the Mozart Requiem possibly to follow.

Christophers is nearing the end of his first year with H&H. And he’s certainly had big shoes to fill. Before Llewellyn, the society was steered by Christopher Hogwood, who turned its orchestra into a period instrument ensemble. Bernard expects Christophers to enact his own revolution, in his own, softly-spoken way.

“The first time I watched Harry in performance I was thrilled,” she says excitedly. “He has great discipline but it comes naturally, he doesn’t force it on anyone. It’s contagious, he just gets the musicians to be completely with him in the work. And that’s so important when you’re playing your hundredth Messiah. Harry reminds the musicians that most of the people in the audience are experiencing their first Messiah. We needed a great musician to come in with vision and reshape H&H as we move towards the bicentennial. You can hear a drastic change already in the sound of the performances.”

Christophers himself puts that process in simple terms. “Living in Europe, you expect Baroque groups to have a uniform kind of sound. But H&H was completely different to anything I’d encountered before. It was a lot bigger than I was used to. Crazy. Because they perform most of their concerts in Boston’s Symphony Hall, which has around 2000 seats, or in Jordan Hall, which still manages more than 1000.” Thus part of his mission, when he took up the job, was clear. “One of the oboists said to me, ‘Harry, we do loud’. And trying to refine that sound down, telling the players that they don’t have to strain to fill the hall, is important. And when you achieve that wider dynamic range, you make the listener really listen.”

Listening to Christophers impart these secrets, he makes it sound easy. The daunting bit for an Englishman abroad, he says, was meeting the money. “When I realised they were considering me, I went to a dinner in one of the Boston clubs to meet some of the supporters, and was asked about my early upbringing and how I got into music. To a Brit this sort of thing can seem really intimidating. I thought, ‘Right, I’m going to break the ice’. So in the middle of this very formal club, I said, ‘I was born on December 26 and that’s the nearest I ever got to Jesus’. And they all laughed! Then I talked about my early musical experiences and suddenly they went around the table and it was a bit like a Monty Python sketch. We were all talking about how and why we became involved with the H&H. And it became a really fascinating discussion. In Britain we rather stand apart from the funders, but they were so genuinely interested and were open to the idea that there were a few things I want to alter.”

Working on the principle that you’re never too old to change, his benevolent tinkering has been evident in many aspects of H&H. Asking the female performers not to wear black met, he says, “a little bit of resistance” from some of the musicians, but audience members loved it. “Just the ladies wearing a colour created a feeling of relationship between auditorium and stage,” he says.

Programme books are another bugbear for him. “What people read in the programme is part of the whole experience of going to a concert. I found the notes full of analysis and I hate music analysis! Audiences want to know about the composer, about what was happening at the time the music was written. They like titbits of information that fascinate them and make them feel that they’re going to hear something special.

“Something similar applies to the way music is performed, visually, on the stage. Watch the Boston Symphony Orchestra, they’re absolutely still. They’re taught to sit in the seat and not to move. In Europe we have a totally different attitude. When the Berlin Phil went over last year, one or two critics found their movement unbearable, because they do physically move with the music. I’ve changed that attitude with the H&H Orchestra, because Baroque music comes from dance and you have to engage with the audience. The same with the chorus.”

Programming ideas have changed, too. When I visited H&H recently, it wasn’t for a grand choral work, though the society does plenty of those. I went along to a delightful recreation of a 19th-century English salon. An actor, Jim True-Frost, read poetry by way of introductions to various chamber music pieces and then sat on a chaise longue for all the world as though he were our host at a most civilised soiree. Musical standards were high indeed (in particular a lovely, detailed performance of Schubert’s Trout Quintet) but it was the presentation of the idea, even extending to period dress, that really caught the imagination.

This too is part of the Christophers revolution. Expect some experimenting with new venues (Boston, as Christophers notes, has some beautiful churches), relationships nurtured with favoured artists (Sir Roger Norrington and Richard Egarr among them) and, in keeping with the old to new idea, some unusual musical pairings – Victoria and Poulenc, that kind of thing.

There’s 200 years of history to explore, not least in the barely touched print archive, most of it held by the Boston Public Library. There are, says Bernard, amazing treasures – a letter from Beethoven referring to an uncompleted commission for H&H, board meeting minutes about how male chorus members would have to be plied with brandy to manage the difficulties of Messiah (and the subsequent note that said choristers were having tuning difficulties because they were drunk). That’s a fascinating project awaiting only a sponsor. Christophers and Bernard seem of one mind – to restore the H&H glory days and make 200 the new 21. Any ideas? You can go onto their website and, as it suggests, “Ask Harry”!

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© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014