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A Tribute to the Masters of the Symphony, with H+H

Jonathan Cohen
Marco Borggreve / Askonas Holt
Jonathan Cohen

Sunday, February 14, 2021
7:00 PM

On WCRB In Concert with the Handel and Haydn Society, Jonathan Cohen conducts two works from opposite ends of Haydn's vast symphonic output, the "Morning" and "Oxford" Symphonies, plus Beethoven's Symphony No. 1.

The Handel and Haydn Society
Jonathan Cohen, conductor

On the program:

HAYDN Symphony No. 6, "Le Matin"
HAYDN Symphony No. 92, "Oxford"
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 1

Recorded on February 28 and March 1, 2020 at New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall

This concert is no longer available on demand.

Read the program notes for this concert.

Learn more about the Handel and Haydn Society, including upcoming concerts.

Hear an interview with CRB's Brian McCreath where Jonathan Cohen reveals the details behind an artistic evolution that takes place through the course of the program, discusses his own path from cellist to conductor, and how that led to the founding of his ensemble Arcangelo with the audio player above.


Brian McCreath [00:00:00] I'm Brian McCreath, I'm at New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall with Jonathan Cohen, here with the Handel and Haydn Society, I think this is for the very first time, Jonathan. Am I right about that?

Jonathan Cohen [00:00:08] Yes. My first visit here. Yeah.

BMcC [00:00:09] Excellent. Well, thanks for taking a little bit of time with me today. A lot of Boston audiences, because you haven't been here before, especially with H and H, may not know you immediately. So it would be a nice opportunity to get to know you, but also talk about this program. So let's start with the program itself. You've chosen a couple of Haydn symphonies and a Beethoven symphony. So you have lots of options when it comes to that kind of repertoire. What led you to these specific pieces? The Le Matin and the Oxford Symphony by Haydn and Beethoven's First?

JC [00:00:38] Yeah, they're three very interesting pieces. I love the Matin Symphony of Haydn. I kind of have this belief that Haydn was saying that, "Here's this new form called the symphony." And he's already starting to do interesting things. He's got lots of solo instruments in the orchestra. And there's even one point, a little quote from Corelli, I think a Corelli concerto grosso in the end of the second movement. And I really think that Haydn is saying, "Here we are, here's a new thing called the symphony, and I owe a great debt to the concerto grosso form that helped me to figure out this new thing, the symphony." So I always like playing this piece. And Haydn, I think, was an absolute genius, especially painting things like sunrises and nature, you know, and I think you can hear that a lot in this piece at the very beginning as a sunrise in music. And that's something that's really interesting.

BMcC [00:01:34] Well, so as one of his really early symphonies, what is it that makes this symphony different from the later ones? You have the Oxford, which is one of those later symphonies. What's going on with Haydn? You say that he was thinking about the concerto grosso. But what is it that he's doing with these instruments to formulate a symphony that really he hadn't been doing before?

JC [00:01:55] Yeah. So in these early symphonies, he's finding himself, let's say. And so at various points you could say, is this a violin concerto? And then the cello jumps out and plays an obbligato, you know, which is like a solo passage with the orchestra and then the bassoon joins. And in the trio you have a double bass playing a solo. So it's all these personalities leaping out from the orchestra. It's like a sort of big chamber music. It's in between chamber music and orchestral. And that's obviously on the way somewhere. He's finding that balance, I think.

BMcC [00:02:29] Yeah. So it's not only just quoting a Corelli concerto grosso, he's sort of using instruments in their solo forms like one might in a concerto, but now woven all together into a symphony. How does that - I don't know how many years, this tests my historical knowledge - but how many years is it after Le Matin that he composes the Oxford? I don't know however many it is. What is he doing now when he gets to the Oxford with those instruments? It's a whole different level of writing.

JC [00:02:54] Yeah. I mean, there's still some solo elements, especially from the wind group. But I think it feels to me much more integrated of what is the orchestra. So the orchestra's playing very much in a kind of unity. The harmonic structure is bolstered with the winds and the strings and the materials much more integrated. There's still a lot of discussions between the sections of the orchestra and the form is a bit more kind of nailed down. So the Oxford Symphony, I think, called Oxford Symphony because he played it in Oxford, I think, because he went to get a doctorate from Oxford, right? And they made him do lots of concerts when he was there. So I think he got that nickname from that. But one of the great highlights of the Oxford Symphony for me, well, actually, of Haydn's music in general, is this slow movement. I think he does the most amazing slow movements, not that particularly slow, but they just have sort of very generous human characters about them and warmth and benevolence and I think you find that a lot in this piece.

BMcC [00:03:58] Let's move on to the Beethoven First. You know, again, lots of choices, but pretty clear connection between Beethoven and Haydn. So is that kind of what was behind your thinking with including this particular work on the program?

JC [00:04:09] Yeah, I think so, a little bit. I mean, it's very distinctive. I think if Beethoven tries to make a homage to someone else, he can't help but be himself in that. Beethoven famously knelt at Haydn's feet at the performance of The Creation. And he was a big admirer. And of course, with that huge amount of work that Haydn had done to establish a form of what is symphony, then people like Beethoven followed in his footsteps. And this symphony, I think, is indebted. It has a kind of light quality, or light for Beethoven, you know, sort of. It feels like it comes from that. I mean, I think also he's paying homage to Mozart as well. But it's undeniably Beethoven. There's all these sort of accents everywhere and very, very strong force of nature that is Beethoven. And it gives a huge energy to play this piece.

BMcC [00:05:00] Well, and so maybe you've just hinted at the answer to this next question, but when you have a half with Haydn, you know, two symphonies of Haydn, you come back after intermission. What's the difference for the performers on stage? I mean, what is it that you're now going to ask the orchestra to do in this Beethoven symphony that they weren't doing in the Haydn symphonies?

JC [00:05:20] Well, that's a difficult question, because, you know, when you play a composer, you have to become what the music needs you to become. And actually, you know, even when you play Haydn and in different movements, we're not just always sort of, you know, playing in the same way. If the music demands of us a kind of commitment and energy to every note, for the strings to be playing kind of near the bridge and with a lot of energy and passion, then that's what you need to be doing. And that piece requires us to often be in that frame of mind.

BMcC [00:05:53] Now, your background, I understand that you were a cellist. So what is it that, can you think of that moment when you began to think, "This is pretty great to play the cello. But what I really want to do is kind of lead the whole ensemble. I want to be the conductor. I want to be in charge of the entire interpretation." Can you sort of spotlight that moment? Is that even possible?

JC [00:06:15] 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. So I was first and foremost a cellist. And I also played the piano. And then I moved into historical performance. I played the baroque cello in London and many of the baroque orchestras. And at the same time, I was also playing in the modern orchestra. So I sort of had a kind of varied approach. And then I started to become an assistant conductor to William Christie in France. And that was, I think, because I played the cello for him and we did a lot of operas and I was always interested in what were the singers singing? When you were in the pit in the orchestra, you often can't really hear the words and and it's always nice to know what the story is. So I was always asking questions: what's happening there on the stage? And I always wanted to get into the score. And so Bill took me as his assistant, I think, because of my curiosity in those things. 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.

BMcC [00:07:17] And here you are. You find yourself in Jordan Hall. But I mean, I can't imagine someone that would be better to learn from than William Christie and his ensemble Les Arts Florissant. Tell me about what it is that he specifically maybe passed along to you. Is there any particular quality that you think of when you're working with an orchestra like H and H that Bill may have equipped you with?

JC [00:07:43] Goodness. Yes. I mean, one of the things that I admire of his way of working is, he has a very theatrical and dramatic sense of the music. And I think that, I don't know, I've always found myself thinking in those terms as well, which is probably why we got along very well. But yeah, I think these many characters in these pieces like an opera. And that's something that I always try to think, along those lines in terms of colors and characters. And that suits this music very well.

BMcC [00:08:12] Absolutely. Now, at a certain point, and forgive me for not knowing exactly when this was, but you founded Arcangelo, this baroque band in London. And there's a lot of great baroque players in London and terrific ensembles. It's an audacious move to say I'm going to put another one on the map, but it's really worked. Arcangelo has really established its own kind of territory, its own grounding in the early music area. You know, terrific recordings. I think of, I think maybe the first one I heard of you guys was the Bach Violin Concertos with Alina Ibragimova. And then there was this Magnificats, the C.P.E. and the J.S. Bach. But tell me, what was the urge to found your own group in the first place? And how do you attribute, you know, the success of this group overall?

JC [00:09:02]  Yeah, well, it's a lot of questions. No, no, that's alright. Arcangelo, I think, was born out of a desire to play chamber music. So for me, I sort of have a view that all music composed really before late Beethoven is a kind of chamber music. So I wanted very much to bring those ideals to the fore and to work with players that were similarly minded, you know, that felt that chamber music was what it was all about. So that's why Arcangelo started.

[00:09:28] We're celebrating our 10th birthday this year. So it's been ten years now, but it was always about chamber music. And I think it was Iestyn Davies, actually - he's a friend of mine, a countertenor - when we made our first recording of Porpora sonatas, sorry, arias he did, it only required a few players, and a few chamber music style players. And Iestyn asked me if we could put something together for that because they wanted me to play cello. And so I sort of called on my friends and associates, as it were, and something rather special happened. And then it became formalized after that. So that's how it started.

BMcC [00:10:09] Well, now I feel like there's yet another reason to love the work of Iestyn Davies, because we already love his work so much anyway. Well, you mentioned, as, in that part of your development as a cellist, that you really became drawn to early music. And here you are with H and H, one of this country's premiere period instrument ensembles. I'm always curious to know how musicians feel about the connection of this music, and particularly this way of doing this music, to our lives today. Because there's a sense that, on the surface you may think, "Oh, we'll now step into a time machine and separate ourselves from the world and go back and pretend that we're in Esterhazy or whatever." But then there's another way of looking at it, like this music really connects to what the world is today. What are your thoughts about that?

JC [00:10:57] There's two sides to it, isn't there? Because the tradition of the older way of doing things, I think there's many things to learn from that. And of course, our historical journey, let's say, has, in different cultures, we take on different fashions and different values. And I think this is a great period of music in the 17th, 18th centuries, in particular, in the history of music. There's many great things to learn and many aesthetics, too. And I think part of the historical music journey has been not just to play on the equipment of the past and to get closer to what the composer wanted. But I think in order to do that, one has to sort of look a little bit into the culture of the time and what mattered. And that's why, you know, this sort of chamber music ideal is particularly linked. I mean, there was no such thing, for example, as a silent conductor, someone that stood there on a podium with a baton. It was always directed by the composer or the violinist or the harpsichordist. And there was much more of a sense of making music very much together rather than having a sort of superstar. And so that's something I'm interested in. I think the music itself is always speaking to ... I mean, that's one of the beauties, I think, of Baroque music. It's essentially harmonic in nature. And I think it's understandable by people. There's lots of beautiful melodies, and you can walk down the street and whistle a tune by Mozart. And it's as invigorating and interesting now as it probably ever was. So, yeah, it's good.

BMcC [00:12:21] Yeah. And yet you still also do plenty of conducting of modern symphony orchestras. And so, is there - I imagine you take the same chamber music based approach into those situations - but is there an attempt, when you're working with orchestras of modern instruments, to bring some of the phrasing, some of the ways of doing things of historically informed performance to those situations?

JC [00:12:45] Yeah, very much. I think modern symphony orchestras that often specialize in later music are very interested to look back into Bach and Haydn and Mozart again. I think it used to be much more of a standard repertoire. But I guess as the early music orchestras have risen up, somehow the symphony orchestras have moved away to accommodate, maybe. But now I often have a great time doing that and thinking about the music harmonically and rhetorically. And in terms of phrasing, I think it's always good because, you know, on the surface to a modern symphony orchestra that plays Mahler symphonies and very complex music, sometimes they can fall into the danger of looking at a piece like that and say, "Oh, it looks easy." But it's not. It's very, very complex, but with a different focus maybe. And that's always great to go into detail on those issues. And I think that's something that's very rewarding to look into.

BMcC [00:13:40] Well, Jonathan Cohen, welcome to Boston and welcome to H and H. It's great to have you here. And thanks for a little bit of your time today. I appreciate it.

JC [00:13:46] Thanks very much. Nice to talk to you.