The appointment of Harry Christophers is reinvigorating a nearly 200-year-old music society, finds James Inverne
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.