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Christophers on Haydn's "The Creation," and 13 Years with H+H

Harry Christophers conducting the Handel and Haydn Society at Symphony Hall
Sam Brewer
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Harry Christophers conducting the Handel and Haydn Society at Symphony Hall

In 2009, Harry Christophers conducted the Handel and Haydn Society for the first time as Music Director, in a performance of Handel's Messiah. Reviewing the concert for The Boston Globe, David Weininger wrote that Christophers "led a vital performance that bristled with energy and defied any sense of routine. Familiar moments that often pass without notice had coherence and shape, as did the larger paragraphs of individual movements."

Now, as Artistic Director, Christophers will soon change titles once again, becoming Conductor Laureate of H+H as he steps away from the organization he has shaped and guided for the last 13 seasons. But Weininger's words were both perceptive and prescient, as "bristled with energy" and "defied any sense of routine" could also apply to Christophers's tenure overall.

Fifteen CD releases on the Coro label have captured that spirit, as have performances that have taken H+H beyond its usual homes of Symphony Hall and Jordan Hall to Tanglewood and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Carnegie Hall.

My colleagues and I have spoken with Christophers on a number of occasions, usually in conjunction with broadcasts of H+H concerts, but in relation to other projects as well. He is unfailingly gracious, but also consistently enthusiastic, conjuring words and phrases that communicate an absolute devotion not only to whatever music he may be performing, but also to inviting listeners to share in his excitement, to be participants in the event themselves.

As Christophers prepares to conduct his final performances as Artistic Director, of Haydn's The Creation, I talked with him about that particular masterpiece, as well as his time in Boston.

To hear our conversation (recorded during a break in a bustling rehearsal hall), click on the player above. Or, read the transcript below.

Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath. I'm here with Harry Christophers, the Artistic Director of the Handel and Haydn Society, but only for about another week or so. Harry, thank you so much for some of your time in this last week of your directorship of H and H.

Harry Christophers It's a great pleasure, Brian.

Brian McCreath Well, this has been a remarkable 13 years, but you're ending it all, and I shouldn't say ending. You retain a title after this week of Emeritus, I think, or...

Harry Christophers Yeah, no, Conductor Laureate.

Brian McCreath Ah, Laureate, thank you.

Harry Christophers I like the Laureate sound.

Brian McCreath Yeah, yeah, Laureate sounds good. So that opens the possibility of some things in the future. But for now, you're bringing your Artistic Directorship to a close with Haydn's The Creation. I'm interested in what your thinking is behind this particular piece for what is really kind of a momentous time in the life of H and H, and in your own life, too.

Harry Christophers Yes. Well, I mean, it's the piece I wanted to close with because it's sort of the piece, I think, in my tenure here, I felt H and H sort of came of age. And we did it in, I think it was 2015, it was the bicentennial year. And we recorded it live. And I made a point back then that we would do it in English because that's how it had been first done with H and H. And to do it this year, what I realized with 2022, if my math is right, I read the other day that the first time H and H performed The Creation here in Symphony Hall was in 1902. So that makes it, I think, 120 years on, and we're doing it. And it's a piece, I just love it. I mean, it's a piece that makes you smile. It's Haydn at his best. You know, the whole fact, I mean, for somebody coming from England, the whole fact that, actually, he was so inspired by Handel's oratorios, that makes it even more perfect for Handel and Haydn Society to be doing this. I mean, it is such a brilliant, brilliant work.

Brian McCreath And I think that that is something we can say about your 13 years here, is that you've done a ton of different things, a lot of different music. But Handel and Haydn have always been somewhere in the mix. There's never been a time when there isn't something coming up or that just passed that is either Handel or Haydn. I think that's been an important part of your time here.

Harry Christophers Absolutely. I mean, I arrived, when I came here 13 years ago, I mean, I think people would call me a Handel nut, because I love the oratorios, and I wanted to make a real point of trying each season to present another added oratorio, not just Messiah or Israel in Egypt, but, you know, we've done, I think, Saul, Jephtha, Hercules, so many. And it's been brilliant, because these are great dramatic works. I mean they're the closest we get to opera on the concert platform.

But then, you know, over 13 years with H and H, you've all given me a love of Haydn. I mean, I'm the first one to confess that when I arrived here, I hadn't done much Haydn. I performed Creation a few times. I've done a few Haydn symphonies with modern orchestras, but I wouldn't say I was acquainted with Haydn. But you've all given me the bug for him. And I can safely say now, I leave H and H not as only as a Handel nut, but as a Haydn nut. And that's really great for me.

When I was at university, you read about Haydn, he's titled The Grandfather of the Symphony. So, you sort of have this image of this sort of rather old person, you know, stuck in his ways, etc. And that couldn't be further from the truth. And doing, we did the whole cycle of "Paris" symphonies, I just became aware of all the imagery that's conjured up, the wit, the emotion, the passion, the drama. And of course, with Creation, we've got all that, all that inspiration, all that incredible life of Haydn's music, all brought into the culmination of a great, great oratorio that can stand alongside Handel.

Brian McCreath I'm so interested that Haydn wasn't a big part of your artistic life before coming here, because it has been a huge part of your life here. Every year, a concert devoted to Haydn's symphonies and other works, many of which have been recorded and now kind of live in that discography of H and H that's so valuable. But what has Haydn done and playing all these symphonies, and now The Creation, what has that done for the musicians themselves? What have you found over the years that, when you return to Haydn – generally in January, that's what those concerts have tended to happen – when you open up those Haydn symphonies again in January, what do you see as the progression for the musicians over these years?

Harry Christophers Yeah, it has been absolutely amazing, because I do remember, you know, one or two symphonies I did prior to coming to H and H, with modern symphony orchestras. And I remember one in particular, with the, I think it was probably Haydn 99 with the BBC Philharmonic, and the leader saying to me, "You know, Harry, we should be performing Haydn once a month just for discipline. It's so hard with the strings." And wow, and you know, that is absolutely right. It is so hard. But one of the beauties of the period music movement and the fact that we play on period [instruments] is that we can really bring this to life. It is, of course, it's still difficult for the strings, but their technique and their style make it so much more approachable, and it all comes to life.

And I think the bonus of starting, you know, with the "Paris" symphonies and going through those, and now we're moving on to the "London" symphonies, that we're seeing the progression that Haydn went through. I remember years and years ago, we did some of the really early symphonies. We did Le Matin [Symphony No. 6, "The Morning"], Le Midi [Symphony No. 7, "The Mid-day"], Le Soir [Symphony No. 8, "The Evening"]. So, very chamber. Chamber works, really. But then we see Haydn, his orchestra, grow, his, you know, the first use of clarinets in the Symphony 99. And his expertise grow.

And one thing for me that's been really lovely, and I remember reading an article by the late [Nikolaus] Harnoncourt about Haydn, and him talking in totally pictorial terms. And I thought, wow, that's exactly what I've been doing in rehearsals. And here's the great Harnoncourt doing this thing. And it gave me the strength and the courage to actually go further than that. So, we don't talk in rehearsals. We don't talk about analysis. We don't talk about what progression this is all going through. We talk about imagery, and I try and get the players to, in their own minds, not necessarily conjure up the same idea I'm having, but conjure up an idea in their own mind. And that, in turn, has allowed the players to speak for themselves, to allow their own personalities to come into the music. And, you know, after all, that is what we as musicians are all about.

And I think that's seen that, you know, the progress from Baroque music through Classical, in the same way in that a continuo line in Baroque music has to be inventive, has to be constantly thinking to themselves, not doing the same thing twice. So, we bring those skills and that expertise into the Classical repertoire, into Haydn. There's a lot more obviously given to us on the page, much, much more information by Haydn. He was so specific, so many details that he writes in, taking it all, you know, what's the composer wanting? You know, when you see a staccato mark, well, actually, it's not like a modern staccato. It's a different gesture each time. And so, we work out, get into the mood of that sort of movement, be it a slow movement or a minuet, a trio, or the final, sort of, faster movements, and try and, you know, get into that spirit. And that's been, for me, that's been fascinating. And I think it's allowed the players to really develop, and as I said before, just express themselves. I mean, that's all I've wanted to do.

Brian McCreath I find it so fascinating that these Haydn projects have been growth for the musicians and for you, and even, now that I hear you describe it, even tracking Haydn's own growth himself as a composer, which I think is fantastic. What a legacy of these many years of hearing these. When we come to The Creation, one of his very late works, how does all of that that we've now gotten to with the instrumentalists, with the orchestra, the period instruments, now the chorus is involved. Of course, you've done other Haydn choral pieces. But now, in this almost culminating work of Haydn's work, how does the chorus take on Haydn in a way that might be different from those Baroque pieces, the Messiah and the other oratorios you've done by Handel?

Harry Christophers Yes, that's a very good question, because, actually, I was talking to the chorus exactly about this last night when we were rehearsing. And I was saying, you know, if you look at the way Handel creates his choruses, you know, he's got incredible repetition of words going on, and, you know, a thematic material and how you use it, how you get from the beginning to the end of that without it just being one crescendo, one massive sound. You've got to have style. A lot of architecture, I always talk about architecture, a lot of phrasing, everybody knowing exactly what they're doing.

The difference with Haydn is, of course, we do have great choruses in Creation. They may not be sometimes quite as complex as Handel ones, but what we have is complexity of orchestral sounds that are going round that, giving us the impact. You know, if we think of something like, say, let's just take something incredibly well-known, like the “Amen” chorus in Handel's Messiah. The way, you know, the word Amen is sung 50 times, and the way he progresses, he takes us in a certain direction. He takes us back and then takes us further. And that's what we've got to do, a feeling of ebb and flow, light and shade, constantly.

What Haydn does is that he injects those sort of moments of ebb and flow with added instrumentation, building, building, you know, sforzando bass lines that are appearing in the bass trombone, the contrabassoon, and the cellos and basses, and everything filling out. So that's giving us this sense of energy. But, at the same time, the chorus have got to be remembering that every time they inflect a repetition of words, that has got to be constantly inflected and a new gesture. And we talk a lot about text.

I mean, as you know, Brian, I mean, if we're performing any vocal work, the text has to come first, and it has to sound natural. It must. And I just go back to early Baroque music, go back to Monteverdi. And Monteverdi said you should sing as you speak. And that is exactly my dictum for every bit of vocal music I do. It's a simple idea. But it's a new idea to most singers and particularly most ensembles that actually feel they have to sing in a very regimented way. But actually, no, express yourselves, sing these lines, make music out of them. Of course, you've got to be regimented. You've got to know when you're breathing and, you know, you've got to listen to other people. But that's what makes it exciting. And so many of the choruses in Creation begin with the word "the." It's an unimportant word, but we have to inflect it. We have to know what "the" is taking us on to, you know, and so it's that energy.

I talk a lot about the importance of unimportant words because the unimportant word is taking us on to an important word. And the way that, you know, when we speak, we don't bulge on a syllable. I talk a lot to the chorus about enjoying their vowels, but actually in the right context. And if you're singing the word, say "world," it has a front of the sound. It has a close. It's not a crescendo through that, because it doesn't make any sense. So, it's a lot of, you know, discipline, a choral discipline. But I think choral discipline in a way that the chorus are not necessarily used to. And I think it's the same worldwide. I have a particular take on the way singers and a multiple group of singers sing, because I see no difference between somebody singing an aria and actually 40 people singing that same aria. If they express themselves in the same way, it will live. It's not about spitting out consonants for the sake of it, just to make those words heard. It's to make sense of the sentence and the syntax.

Brian McCreath And I think if I were to go back and listen to the interviews we've done over these last 13 years, every time there's a vocal piece, you're right, it comes back to, what is the text? What are we doing with the text? So, so absolutely consistent. But I also hear you saying that one of the challenges for the chorus here, to go back to your use of the “Amen” in Messiah, I don't have that score kind of fully in my head, but I think, if I remember correctly, all those choral lines are basically also somewhere in the orchestra. There's somewhere for that singer to grab onto an instrumentalist and be with them. I hear you saying not so much in Haydn, that maybe there's more independence between these two bodies.

Harry Christophers There is more independence. Yeah, yes, there is. I mean, in the bigger choruses, you've got a lot of colla parte where they, you know, instruments are playing the same as the choir. So, the trombones tend to take that aspect with the altos, tenors, and basses. But then, yes, you've got so much more interest going around, the counterpoint lines that are independent from the choir, fantastic figuration in the woodwind. I mean, it is just brilliantly written.

And I think one of the particular, not so much for the choruses, but, of course, in the arias, what we have is word painting that is just exemplary. We've had word painting in Handel, Purcell, Bach, a lot of, particularly Purcell, I mean, a lot of beautiful word painting that is just fantastic. What Haydn does, which is completely different from any other composer, he preempts that word painting in the orchestra before the vocalist has it. Now, that is a completely new idea. Usually, the orchestra will respond to what the vocalist has sung. Not so in Haydn, and it is just brilliant.

And Haydn varies it a lot through the work. The soprano, of course, has beautiful arias of the cooing dove. And it's just so, so beautiful. And just inspired, inspired woodwind solos, particularly for the flute and clarinet. And bear in mind, you know, clarinet was a new-ish instrument. Clarinet has sublime solos. So the soloists, of course, they have just the most wonderful, if you talk to all of them, you talk to Joélle [Harvey, soprano], Rob [Murray, tenor], and Matthew [Brook, bass-baritone], they'll just say, we love singing this work, because it just gives us the ability to just paint beautiful words and know that the composer who's writing for us has done it, all that work for us. And we can just go further, communicating everything.

And it is very exciting. But I think one of the really interesting things with The Creation is the very, very first movement. I mean, to me, the listener, it must have had the same experience as people listening to [Stravinsky's] Rite of Spring for the first time. I mean, it's chaos, of course, that's the first movement. And it's extraordinary writing, extraordinary variety of dynamic, that the pianissimo moments are absolutely exquisite. And again, as an orchestra, we've got to be really disciplined. Haydn has been so particular where his crescendos, diminuendos [are placed]. They're not uniform at all. Every part has something different. You know, you have this opening statement, where, you know, after the big first chord, you have these beautiful pianos [soft]. And then the horn at one moment is forte [loud], just for two bars. He comes straight out of the texture. Then everything else that's happening, you build up to amazing moments. We have these offbeat string sweeping of chords where the main orchestra, the woodwind and brass, are all on the beat. And it's quite extraordinary.

And then a bit of Gershwin, don't you, really? I mean, you have a clarinet cadenza, you know. Okay. The clarinet in those days couldn't do a glissando up, but it's the same idea. It is just totally and utterly unique and giving us this representation of chaos that is, it's not chaotic at all because it's incredibly well thought out and conceived. And then, you know, "In the beginning," the bass starts, and this hushed sound... And then we can't give the game away, but everybody sort of knows what happens when light appears. But it is exhilarating.

Brian McCreath Yeah. Yeah, that's fantastic. Wow. When we look back 13 years, there's so much we could talk about. But I want to, just for a moment, consider one aspect of your time here. The chorus has become just renowned around the country as one of the great choruses singing this kind of repertoire. At the same time, you are now responsible for hiring about 60% of the orchestra. And, of course, this is a natural kind of life of an orchestra. These things happen, that people leave and come along, etc. When you are hiring someone for this orchestra, of course, you need them to be able to play their instrument and play it well. And that's the bottom line. But what else are you looking for in a musician to join H and H?

Harry Christophers Instrumentalists, singers, it's all the same. I'm looking for personality. As you said, these people are fantastic musicians. They all are, great. But it's not just about playing the notes, it's about being inspirational with them. It's about, and a vast amount about, it is about being a good colleague. That is so, so important to music-making. You know, we're not a big symphony orchestra. We can't hide anywhere, you know? Okay, the orchestra for Creation is big-ish. I think we're sort of eight [first violins], eight [second violins], six [violas], four [cellos], two [double basses]. But still, that's not a massive, great string ensemble. But there's got to be a feeling of camaraderie, of really supporting your colleague when you're playing and feeding off each other. You know, I'm not a dictator conductor. I know I feed off, because the players know so much more about their instruments than I do and it's so much more about style, you know, so I'm feeding off them.

Aisslinn [Nosky, concertmaster] of course, is just, you know, that was an inspirational hiring moment. You know, these people don't crop up very often. And you know, luck was with us, and Aisslinn just happened to be there, and feeling that she would like to come and perform in Boston, and, oh, my goodness me, it's been brilliant. It's given me the opportunity to say, look, hang on, let's do the Haydn Violin Concerto, let's do the Mozart, you know, and hand over to Aisslinn. I'm not going to, there's no point with concertos being, you know, having a middle man on stage. Let Aisslinn be part of the ensemble and create fantastic music.

So yeah, it's about personalities, and I think it's the same as in sports. You know, if you've got a team that thinks and works together and enjoys working together, then we're on a winner. And exactly the same in the chorus. When I came, you know, I have to confess, when I came, I knew I could make an impact with the orchestra. And I was very worried about the chorus, because, I know everybody thinks of me as a choral person because of [my British ensemble] The Sixteen. But, you know, I founded The Sixteen back in 1979. It's been sort of my baby, but I haven't gone around the world conducting radio choirs or choruses. I've never done, because I've got, you know, I've got something that's very good. So I just love it.

And the thing with The Sixteen, of course, it reflects the music I love, or rather the music I feel I've got something to say about. I mean, not necessarily the music one loves is the music one's any good at performing. So, I've made very much a statement with that. But H and H has allowed me to sort of broaden, you know, as I said before, going to Haydn, there is something. I don't do Classical music with The Sixteen. So, this has really been a blessing and something that was quite wonderful.

But, you know, when I had the chorus, first of all, I remember thinking that, you know, they're singing fine. But I was seeing this blanket in front of them. There's this lack of communication. The faces weren't doing anything. And again, I don't know who writes this textbook on choral singing or choral conducting that says you've got to be a, you know, a robot. You've got to just do, you know, what the markings in the score are, and not commit it. You can't be a soloist. But actually, all the people in the chorus that have come out of the woodwork have come out of the woodwork, I think, because they know that with H and H, with me being here, that I give them step-out solos on Symphony Hall stage. We do a Bach cantata, they come from the chorus, and they fulfill themselves. And I say to them immediately, that was fantastic. Now go and do exactly the same as you've been doing back there.

Brian McCreath Nice. That's great. And when you began talking, you said "looking for personality." And the first picture in my mind was Aisslinn. So, of course, I mean, she's so much a part of the growth of this organization, as you've been here. But, yes, the chorus, too. I mean, I'm very interested how you describe your evolution with the chorus.

Harry Christophers And having a good rapport with Aisslinn and having a very good rapport with Scott [Alan Jarrett, Resident Conductor, Chorus], who of course, is in charge of the chorus, really. And it's great to have that feel that, you know, I'm on their wavelength, they're on my wavelength. So, we're talking the same language, and we know exactly what we want and are trying to achieve. And for the singers I know, I remember somebody saying, one of the singers who had been with me for some time, and a new one comes in, and he has his pencil out and wanted to write. And the person next to him says, "Oh, look, look, you won't need that. Just listen to what Harry says. Just listen. He doesn’t want people marking loads of things into their copies. Just listen, feel the music." And you know, that's exactly what I want. You know, it's not, it mustn't be routine. And that's precisely what H and H isn't. We're not routine. And, you know, we take risks. Some of them might work, some of them may not, but at least we take risks. And that's good. That makes it exciting.

Brian McCreath Now, after 13 years, can you say that there's anything that you've learned about audiences in the United States that maybe you didn't know before, now that you've spent this much time with us here in this country? Is there anything about the way people listen, the kind of reactions you get that are different from your main artistic life in the UK or elsewhere?

Harry Christophers There are. I mean, Symphony Hall, of course, is a staggering place to perform. And I'm just amazed how much the audience know about the music. I mean, they seem to have read a lot. Maybe what they haven't experienced is the music coming to life off the page. There's a big difference between academia and the music coming to life. And I think that's certainly something that I wanted to bring to Symphony Hall, Jordan Hall, wherever audiences are, that there's a kind of bridge from us to the audience. There's also a bridge back from the audience to us.

So, we're feeling their enthusiasm because that's, I mean, my goodness me, as I realized pretty soon after arriving, the enthusiasm of Boston audiences is just staggering. They are willing everybody on to make a great performance. You don't often get, you know, in the UK sometimes, you know, if it's a festival, you sometimes feel, well you got the first front rows, where all the festival businessmen or companies that put money into it. They don’t really want to be there. That's not the case with patrons. You know, we in the UK, we don't have the same sort of scheme of patrons that you have here. And music wouldn't survive in the States without phenomenal patrons. And they are incredible. There's so many of them, so many giving of their, not only not only financially, but of their wisdom and other aspects of things. They never interfere artistically. You know, but they say what they like and they don't like. I mean, I like that, you know, they say, well, I'm not really that keen on Haydn. Well, I'm going to persuade you. And they come back a year later, “You convinced me Harry.” Great, yeah. And, but you know, that's good. And there's a sort of inspiration, the love of what we do. And it is just great.

I mean, in a sense, we're spoiled here in Boston. You know, this is, well, you are, you're a very European city. You're also a city of phenomenal culture. There's so many universities, so much art, much more so than the bigger city like New York, or something like that. There's so much going on here. And Baroque music, period music has really lived. It's been inspirational. It's got, you know, I think none of the other period orchestras in America can boast being able to perform regularly in one of the best symphony halls in the world. We've got to remember this. Symphony Hall, this classic matchbox style, this is one of the greatest, top six concert halls in the world. I mean, we're privileged.

Brian McCreath Absolutely. Well, every everything that happens in there, we're privileged. I know you've got to go. But I can't let you go without asking - and this is so open ended, I'm putting you in a tough spot. You're looking back on 13 years. I mean, what is one highlight of an experience that's going to stand out for you as one of your top memories of being Artistic Director of H and H?

Harry Christophers I've got three, actually, three. One, of course, is Creation, which I've talked about before. But the other was when we did Monteverdi Vespers. And I really saw not only virtuosic playing, but the orchestra, I saw the chorus, again, come of age, and it was absolutely fantastic. And all hats off them for a grueling schedule, where we did Jordan Hall on a Friday night, we went to the Met Museum [in New York], in the Temple of Dendur the next day. We arrived back in Boston about 1:00 in the morning. We did Sanders [Theatre in Cambridge], 3:00 that Sunday, and it was – all the performances have been great – but that was the best performance. And if you ask any of the players, chorus, that's the one that remains in their memory.

And the next one is a composer that I love, and I persuaded H and H we need to do more of, and that's Purcell. And when we did Dido and Aeneas, well, actually two, because we did Faerie Queene at Tanglewood, which was just brilliant. Again, that was a moment where, for the orchestra, I just felt so proud of them in particular, because I gave sort of ideas to, you know, the instrumentation and, you know, just an idea, run with it. I remember with [Timpanist] Jonathan Hess, I said, "There's no tambourine part, there's no bell part, but let's bring one there. It sort of needs, that dance needs something. Just run with a couple of ideas." And he did. I'll never forget Priscilla [Herreid], oboist, who was also doubling as recorder. I mean, oh, wow, what recorder playing! It was just fun from beginning to end. And that's what that music is all about.

Brian McCreath Those examples speak to everything you've already said, which is, the Monteverdi, that speaks to the community of this ensemble, that they had this experience together and were at their best at the end of this grueling journey. And this spontaneity, this fun that you've brought to Purcell, as you say, great examples. So, Harry, I can't thank you enough for all the time we spent together. We'll miss you here. I know it's time for new things to happen for you and for the ensemble and the organization itself. But what a fantastic 13 years. Thank you so much.

Harry Christophers Well, thank you, Brian. And thank you for all the lovely, lovely interviews over the years. Thank you.