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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.

To hear an interview with Jonathan Cohen about this new collaboration, use the player above, and read the transcript below.

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.


Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath from WCRB with Jonathan Cohen, who is now the Artistic Director Designate for the Handel and Haydn Society. Jonathan, I'm thrilled to hear this news, and thank you for a little bit of time to talk about it today. I appreciate it.

Jonathan Cohen Yeah, it's a great pleasure, Brian. Nice to see you.

Brian McCreath And you're back here in Boston for this announcement. And you're getting to know the city even a little bit more after your three visits so far. But I think that the first thing I just want to throw to you is a big picture question, which is, this is a huge opportunity for you, it's also a huge opportunity for the Handel and Haydn Society at this moment of transition, so, tell me about what the opportunity represents for you in its biggest terms.

Jonathan Cohen Well, you know, it is an enormous opportunity to spend quality time doing great, great music with people that share that love and passion for this repertoire, you know? Handel and Haydn is a venerable arts institution in the USA, you know, the most famous, 207, I think 207 years?

Brian McCreath 208, I think, yeah. This is the 208th season.

Jonathan Cohen Exactly. I mean, you know, that kind of pedigree and experience and also sort of constant reinvention, an interest in this music of Handel and Haydn, [and their] contemporaries. That's fantastic to be able to spend time with them doing this kind of music.

Brian McCreath Now, you've led the ensemble in three separate programs over the last couple of years. It actually struck me when I read the press release, I didn't even remember that your first was immediately prior to the Covid pandemic.

Jonathan Cohen That's right.

Brian McCreath Amazing that you kind of sneaked in right before everything fell apart for everybody.

Jonathan Cohen Yeah.

Brian McCreath But I guess that, given those three visits now that you've had, and what you've learned, you know, from afar, in whatever way, how do you see this as an opportunity for the organization with you? What are you bringing to this organization that maybe hasn't been here before?

Jonathan Cohen Well, that's maybe a difficult question for me personally, to ...

Brian McCreath Fair.

Jonathan Cohen ... to answer, but I don't know, I suppose maybe one of the differences between me and maybe some other people is that I like to play from the instrument sometimes, you know? So, one of my great loves is chamber music. And I really feel that all, all baroque music, let's say any music before late Beethoven is a kind of chamber music. That's how I'm thinking of it. So I suppose, yeah, I really enjoy to play along with the musicians, you know, in some pieces.

Brian McCreath On harpsichord.

Jonathan Cohen Yeah, harpsichord, exactly. I lead from the harpsichord.

Brian McCreath Portative organ.

Jonathan Cohen Yeah. The organ as well. Just leading from the instrument sometimes can be very enjoyable and very sort of natural experience, which I enjoy.

Brian McCreath And for our listeners, I'll just reveal that I saw you just a couple of nights ago, three nights ago, I suppose, in Montreal, doing this with one of your other ensembles, Les Violons du Roy. And it was striking watching you from the audience with your back turned to the audience at the harpsichord, and then later on in the portative organ for the Pergolesi Stabat Mater. Not a lot of arm movement is possible because your hands are on keyboards. But at key moments, just here and there, and a nod here and there, and a and a little bit of a shimmy in your shoulders, you know, and that's different from what we usually think of as a conductor.

Jonathan Cohen Well, that's exactly right. And, you know, the designation of a silent conductor, you know, this is a very late invention, let's say, you know? Musicians or music directors or conductors, I think would have meant something a little bit different to what we know as the person standing on a podium with a stick now for later repertoire. Was often that was a different aesthetic in the time, and it feels very natural to get close to that. I mean, of course, it relies on having an absolutely super, top-notch bunch of musicians that can, you know, that can really collaborate beautifully together. And then it's a real joy.

Brian McCreath And what you remind me of ,as well, is our first conversation, when you were here in 2020, and you described your path towards conducting as a cellist, first, and playing in the ensemble with William Christie's Les Arts Florisant.

Jonathan Cohen That's right.

Brian McCreath And that led you into this world, not just to be curious about the entire score, but to continue to see it as a chamber music endeavor.

Jonathan Cohen Yeah, that's exactly right. I mean, I've been with a number of ensembles throughout my, I suppose, younger days, and practicing that. Sometimes takes some time to learn how to direct in that way, you know, takes some experience, and I feel like I've been building that. So yeah.

Brian McCreath I'm glad you mentioned the other ensembles. I just referenced Les Violons du Roy, from Quebec. But you also founded Arcangelo. You're artistic partner of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Tell me about the difference in guest conducting, even if you're a frequent guest conductor, versus the artistic director. These are very different kinds of roles. I'm interested in your thoughts about them and especially, what lessons do you bring to this role for H and H that you may have picked up with these other ensembles and organizations that you've worked with so far?

Jonathan Cohen That's a very detailed question.

Brian McCreath [laughs] You're allowed to answer partially if you want. If there's only a few details you want to give.

Jonathan Cohen I suppose the important thing for me is repertoire, in terms of my experience of repertoire, of having worked as a guest director with other ensembles. And I suppose as an Artistic Director, you're much more involved in terms of the daily considerations, the artistic planning, how the, you know, long term view, vision. As a guest conductor sometimes, you know, it's a slightly different thing. But you go in and you're concerned with that program or that project. And, you know, maybe you don't know intimately how the organization works, and maybe you don't know specifically very much about the players, apart from, you know, what you chat about in the coffee break. So, yes, that's one of the things I'm looking forward to here is to get to know everything in a really detailed way.

Brian McCreath I'm so glad you mentioned the players. This is such an important part, you know, we get wrapped up in sort of the season long project, the multi-year, you know, tributes to this composer or that composer. But it does come down to the chemistry between you and the musicians on stage. You no doubt have developed some of that through guest conducting here. But tell me more about what is possible when you are a regular presence with, you know, the concertmaster and the continuo players and the principal cellist and everything. Tell me about your experiences with other ensembles that inform you about how to develop those relationships.

Jonathan Cohen Well, exactly that, it's relationships, isn't it? And, you know, when we play music together on the stage, it's like a, it's an interaction, it's a social interaction. The better you know somebody that you're interacting with, the more you can interact in a deeper way, I imagine. So I'm very interested in that. Somehow it's the beating heart of the artistic result, somehow, it's the interaction and the sharing of ideas and how those ideas are dissembled and batted around, that's what it's all about somehow.

Brian McCreath Yeah. In the programs that you've directed so far, you've had... Your first was a pretty straight ahead orchestra program.

Jonathan Cohen Yeah. Beethoven [Symphony No.] One, I remember.

Brian McCreath Yeah, beethoven One and a couple of the Haydn symphonies, the Oxford and Le Matin.

Jonathan Cohen That's right.

Brian McCreath And then you also did the program last spring that, sort of the anchor was the CPE [Bach] Magnificat.

Jonathan Cohen That's right. And then the Vivaldi Gloria.

Brian McCreath Yeah, Vivaldi Gloria. So big choral works.

And then this last concert that you conducted in October, actually meant to be led by Bernard Labadie.

Jonathan Cohen That's right.

And you had to step in. But that [was] mostly Bach cantatas, that repertoire that involves some chorus, but lots of solo [vocal music]. Again, a little bit more of the chamber feel. So, I've sort of given, you know, laid out a spectrum of music that you've conducted so far or led, we should say, Tell me about the repertoire and those areas of interest as you approach this job with H and H, the chorus, the orchestra, the chamber music, where do you see those right now? And what thoughts do you have about developing them, either through specific repertoire or particular projects or collaborations?

Jonathan Cohen Yeah. I mean, you know, having just been appointed, I suppose there's a lot of, you know, I want to do a lot of thinking and collaborating and have discussions.

Brian McCreath That's fair.

So I'm not sure, yeah, to reveal a big strategy straightaway. But for sure, as you said, this many elements in our repertoire from the smallest to the largest to huge oratorios to gigantic to very intimate, to cantatas, you know, to solos, to duets. And I think, you know, it's necessary to explore all of those. I think it's important to have a sense of chamber music which can inform larger things as well. Very important to work with this fabulous chorus as often as possible. I love the big oratorios. I mean Handel's and Haydn's oratorio's are some of the greatest, in my opinion, music, you know, I would love to explore, and, you know, involve the education community here as well, something that's very interesting, important that I would like to get to know more about.

Brian McCreath Yeah. Tell me more about the education projects as you know them to be so far in your learning and you're getting up right, you know, up to speed on everything. But H and H does have a really extensive education program and I'm interested in how you see what the potential of your involvement might be.

Jonathan Cohen That's one of the great attractions, I think, for me, for H and H: its absolute commitment to education and to accessibility and young people. You know, this is the future of our audiences. It's the future of music. It's so important to get kids involved. They have seven youth choirs, I believe, H and H, it's a huge program. And, you know, that's something I absolutely want to get involved with. And it would be very good to look at how one can integrate also in the programing, how we can connect the music-making on stage with the work of the Education Department, you know? This is fantastic. So, lots of things to explore and discuss.

Brian McCreath Right. It is preliminary. I know. I'm kind of putting you on the spot.

Jonathan Cohen Yeah, it's true.

Brian McCreath But to continue putting you on the spot just a little bit here, again, no commitments to any particular, specific project or even repertoire or anything. But I just, for our our listeners and readers, who who are still getting to know you...

Jonathan Cohen Right.

Brian McCreath ...what are those composers whose works really ground you, whose works you can't even remember being without at one time before you learned them? I mean, they've been with you all your life. What are those composers whom you maybe haven't had as much of a chance to explore that, you know, maybe at some time in the future - again, no commitments - but I'm interested in your musical tastes and explorations and which way they've gone and which way they might go in the future.

Jonathan Cohen Yeah. Well, you know, for me, of course, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Handel, all those very important composers, 18th century composers. But also, if you go a little bit the other side of the line, go backwards, rewind a little bit. You've got, in 17th century, some very interesting... I'm fascinated by Henry Purcell, for example, beautiful English (hurray!) composer, maybe one of the few, you know.

Brian McCreath Right, right.

Jonathan Cohen His music's fantastic and there's a lot of wonderful choral works as well. And Monteverdi, early Italian stuff, I think is absolutely fascinating, especially when linked to the poetry and the text. And somehow it's where all that energy got birthed from, you know, from the whole music tradition. So there's some, there's many interests I have. As you said, it's gonna be good to think them through and see how one can formulate a plan.

Brian McCreath Yes, yes. No doubt. No doubt. Yeah. So, you know, recording has been a big part of H and H's life in the last several years. And I'm interested just in, I imagine you would like to make recordings. Is that something that you've been discussing with with H and H already?

Jonathan Cohen For sure. We will continue the discussions, but I think recording is a very important part of the life of a musician and a music organization, especially one with such pedigree as H and H. It's important to be putting out our work for the people to listen to, you know. I mean, in a way, that's the mission of the group for hundreds of years is to put out, to educate, to lift the spirits and to bring music out there. And what better way than to make it most accessible on recordings. It's important.

Brian McCreath Yeah. Well I think I've mentioned to you before when we've talked previously that your recordings with Arcangelo, especially to me, just have this vibrancy and aliveness, you know. And so I think that part of that I'm interested in is how this music, that this organization rests itself in - I mean, obviously, there's little, little tiny forays into other lesser known areas - but this core repertoire, how that remains relevant in a world today. I know this is kind of a question that you probably have to field a lot of times. But, you know, in a world that is so, well, you can choose your own description of what our world today is, but it is a far removed from the world in which these pieces were created. How do you see that connection and relevance for this music, for today's world?

Jonathan Cohen Yeah, I don't think it's ever been more relevant.

Brian McCreath Oh, say more about that.

Jonathan Cohen Yeah. Oh, do you not think? I mean, music has such a restorative power to bring people together. You know, it's a real social thing when you make music. You sit with other people and exchange ideas in the most basic form, and share that joy and whatever, sadness, love, whatever it is. And we share that together in a, you know... I don't think there's ever been more of a need than nowadays for that, you know, with various issues and troubles in the world, in its wars. And, you know, let's have a bit of beauty and peace and...

Brian McCreath Absolutely. Lovely. No, that's well put! Absolutely.

So, just another, final question. During your visits to Boston before, you've only been in town, I imagine, probably for like a week at a time..

Jonathan Cohen Yeah, exactly.

Brian McCreath ...and it's a very busy week. But hopefully you'll have a little bit more opportunity to explore the city, get to know the people. I wonder, just from your experience on the stage, how do you perceive the audiences in Boston and their own particular... What kind of turns them on? What gives them energy? And what do you hope to learn about Boston in the next few years?

Jonathan Cohen Well, that was one of the massively attractive things, I think, about H and H, was one of the attributes I think, that was so attractive, was the enthusiasm and love of music and culture by the Boston audiences. I have rarely seen such a joy and energy in concert. Everyone was standing up with great appreciation, you know? Almost like a sort of a fanaticism for that. And that energy is very infectious, I have to say. And, you know, only today I've been on a Duck Tour.

Ah, yes, the Duck Boats!

Yeah, the Duck Boat. We didn't go in the water, but, you know, normally, as you said, I haven't been here. So, only three or four times, you know, and busy full of rehearsals, so mainly the journey being between the hotel and the concert hall for rehearsals with the occasional walk around the area. But today I saw so many fantastic things and I got to see a little bit of different areas of Boston and hear a very entertaining, witty talk about it. So, fascinating, and what a beautiful city. I'm really looking forward to getting to know it in more intimacy.

Brian McCreath Wonderful. Wonderful. Well, we're thrilled that you're here.

Jonathan Cohen Oh, me, too. Yeah, it's very exciting.

Brian McCreath I couldn't have been happier when I heard the news that you've been chosen as the next Artistic Director and that you agreed to do it.

Jonathan Cohen Well, it's a great honor. I'm absolutely thrilled myself.

Brian McCreath Yeah, I think it has all the signs of a great collaboration. So, Jonathan Cohen, thanks so much for your time. I appreciate it.

Jonathan Cohen Thank you.