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Handel and Haydn Society Names Jonathan Cohen as Artistic Director

Jonathan Cohen sitting on a wooden bench, looking to his right
Marco Borggreve
/
Askonas Holt
Jonathan Cohen

The Handel and Haydn Society has announced the appointment of Jonathan Cohen as its 15th Artistic Director, succeeding Harry Christophers, whose final performance in that role was last spring, after 13 seasons. Cohen, 44, is one of the youngest ever to hold the position of Artistic Director in H+H’s now 208-year history.

Cohen is currently the founder and Artistic Director of the UK-based early music ensemble Arcangelo, and since 2017, he has been Music Director of the Quebec-based ensemble Les Violons du Roy. He is also Artistic Director of the Tetbury Festival in the UK and Artistic Partner of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Cohen conducted the H+H period-instrument orchestra for the first time in February 2020, only a couple of weeks before the initial disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, in a program that included Haydn’s Symphonies No. 6, "Le Matin," and 92, "Oxford," and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1. At that time, he described his transition from instrumentalist to conductor:

“I had sort of curious journey into conducting because I guess it wasn't something that I grew up wanting to do or thought that I would do. And then I started to become an assistant conductor to William Christie [founder of Les Arts Florissants] in France because I played the cello for him and we did a lot of operas, and I was always interested in what the singers singing. I was always asking questions: what's happening there on the stage? And I always wanted to get into the score. And I also played the harpsichord and the piano so I could work with singers. And I was just keen to understand. And then I started taking on more and more responsibility there, and then, in the end, ended up being a conductor.” (Read and hear the entire interview.)

That grounding in the narrative and drama of opera has informed his subsequent H+H performances, including a program last April anchored by C.P.E. Bach’s Magnificat, and this season’s opening program, which featured four cantatas by J.S. Bach. In his review of the latter program, the Boston Globe’s David Weininger wrote that Cohen made a strong impression:

“Leading from the harpsichord and seeming to conduct with the entire upper half of his body, he largely eschewed time beating in favor of sharp gestures that elicited equally vivid results from the orchestra and chorus. … [Bach’s Cantata No. 191 offered] the opportunity to enjoy Cohen’s expert direction and the chorus’s execution: The pacing, playing, and singing of the outer movements were a marvel. H&H should consider having him back to conduct the entire Mass in B minor.”

In the announcement, Robert N. Shapiro, Chair of the Handel and Haydn Board of Governors, said, “Three years ago, H+H embarked on an extensive search focusing on the top talent in the Baroque and Classical world. We are incredibly impressed by Jonathan’s musicality, his knowledge and passion. He inspires the musicians and engages audiences. Jonathan is a joy to watch and to know. His warm inviting spirit is apparent to all who attend his concerts – he draws you in to the music making.”

For his part, Cohen said, “Working with H+H is a dream come true, allowing me to work collaboratively with some of the most skilled and passionate musicians on the planet to create beautiful performances that will leave a lasting impact on our audiences. I look forward to sharing my love and passion with future audiences and creating moving and memorable experiences in the concert hall.”

H+H President and CEO David Snead said, “From Jonathan's first performances with Handel and Haydn it was clear that his approach to music-making aligns powerfully with what H+H is all about: a sense of immediacy, connection and engagement between musicians, audience, and composer. Jonathan understands that performing on period instruments is not an academic exercise; it's about performing this music with the freshness and vibrancy of new music, regardless of when it was written. Jonathan does this extremely well."

Cohen returns to Boston in December to lead “A Baroque Christmas,” featuring soprano Robin Johannsen and the H+H period-instrument orchestra in a program of works by Handel, Bach, and Zelenka. For more about that program and Jonathan Cohen, visit the Handel and Haydn Society.