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"The Glories of Bach," with H+H and Jonathan Cohen

 Jonathan Cohen leads the Handel and Haydn Society at Symphony Hall, October 2022
Sam Brewer
Handel and Haydn Society
Jonathan Cohen leads the Handel and Haydn Society at Symphony Hall, October 2022

Sunday, January 15, 2023

On WCRB In Concert with the Handel and Haydn Society, H+H's next Artistic Director, Jonathan Cohen, conducts cantatas and orchestral music by Bach at Symphony Hall.

Jonathan Cohen, conductor
Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra and Chorus
Lauren Snouffer, soprano
Andrew Haji, tenor
Michael Sumuel, bass

J.S. BACH - Cantata, BWV 61, Nun komm der Heiden Heiland
BACH - Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D, BWV 1066
Dieterich BUXTEHUDE - Cantata, BuxWV 15, Der Herr ist mit mir
BACH - Cantata, BWV 140, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme
BACH - Cantata, BWV 191, Gloria in excelsis Deo

This concert was recorded at Symphony Hall on Oct. 9, 2022, and is no longer available on demand.

Read the program notes and artist profiles from this concert

To hear a preview with conductor Jonathan Cohen and WCRB's Alan McLellan, use the player above, and read the transcript below.

Learn more about the Handel and Haydn Society and see upcoming concerts

Hear an interview with Artistic Director Jonathan Cohen and CRB's Alan McLellan using the audio player above, and read the transcript below:


Alan McLellan I'm Alan McLellan for WCRB In Concert, and Jonathan Cohen, the newly appointed Artistic Director and conductor of the Handel and Haydn Society, is with me. Welcome.

Jonathan Cohen Thanks, Alan. Lovely to be with you.

Alan McLellan And welcome to Boston, in the sense of now being part of the fabric, as being a part of the Handel and Haydn Society and its leadership. And how have you enjoyed it so far?

Jonathan Cohen Thanks very much. It's a great pleasure to be here in Boston. It's such a vibrant city with so much going on with arts and culture. It feels like a wonderful opportunity to make music here with the orchestra.

Alan McLellan Looking forward to this concert, "The Glories of Bach," on WCRB In Concert. I think Bach has been one of the glories of H and H through its history. And how do you feel like the position of Bach is going to change or is it going to be the same going forward?

Jonathan Cohen Bach endures forever, doesn't he? Bach is one of the great composers, and he's constantly offering us a depth of vision and musicianship which is just transformative. And, you know, for an ensemble like H and H with its marvelous chorus and its Baroque period instruments, strings and winds, you know, it's very important to be always with Bach. I think I have absolutely a strong commitment to Bach within the organization.

Alan McLellan What was your first encounter with Bach? Can you remember that?

Jonathan Cohen Probably [the] cello suites, you know, because I was first and foremost a cellist in my earlier years. And the cello suites, you know, for a cellist is a little bit the Holy Grail. So probably, like, you know, [sings] when I was a young child.

Alan McLellan Just trying to master it. Yes.

Jonathan Cohen Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly. Probably.

Alan McLellan And those things are a whole world unto themselves. It's quite an amazing set of pieces.

Jonathan Cohen Oh, really, yeah.

Alan McLellan Yeah. So, from there, you have moved on, and now you're often playing harpsichord and other instruments.

Jonathan Cohen Yeah, harpsichord, and organ and conducting. I still play cello now and again. And I really enjoy that, and especially, you know, doing chamber music with friends. And it's always a real pleasure, although I'd have to practice for a long time before I have an engagement as a cellist, because my fingers are a bit, you know, soft now.

Alan McLellan We're not going to hear the complete cello suites with Jonathan Cohen.

Jonathan Cohen I would think there's probably better versions to listen to. [laughs]

Alan McLellan Oh, that's too bad. We'll have to give you your time with your cello. So, this concert has three Bach cantatas, plus the Third Orchestral Suite, plus a cantata by Buxtehude. And I want to talk about Buxtehude in a minute, but I just wanted to ask you about the three Bach cantatas. They come from different periods of his life, but all pretty much from his time in Leipzig. Is there a difference in the character?

Jonathan Cohen I think certainly there's a development in the Wachet auf. There's a sort of, um, it feels to me more intricate, more philosophical if you think about that beautiful movement between the Soul and Christ, with the piccolo violin winding its way around like the Holy Spirit somehow.

Alan McLellan Right. This is [Cantata No.] 140 and it was from 1731, I think, something like that, when he was well established.

Jonathan Cohen Right, exactly. But you know, similarly, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland is an extraordinary piece which kind of bursts forth. You have the grand overture in a French style, you know, because he's saying essentially, the cantata is saying here comes the Holy One, you know, here comes Jesus. And so, I imagine Bach is, we have these two viola lines inside this very highly stylized French style, and is really, Bach is really saying, look, here's, like, King Louis XIV, you know, here comes the king. And so, he puts it very much in this elegant and noble French style.

Alan McLellan And that's the [Cantata No.] 61 from 1723. It's a marvelous way that Bach has of kind of absorbing styles from all over.

Jonathan Cohen Absolutely, I mean, Bach was the maybe the premiere absorber. You know, his music is always, as we will talk about, I'm sure, with Buxtehude and with Vivaldi and with Handel and with all the French style as well. His he was a keen observer. That's absolutely the case.

Alan McLellan This orchestral suite provides us with a bit of a break. And this is this is like secular music. This is not music for the church at all. How do you think Bach associated those things? His life in the church and his...

Jonathan Cohen I don't think he was drawing walls between parts of his life. I don't think so. And I'm not sure, you know, because if you live in a life of music, I mean, of course you have different tendencies in different places. And of course, you know, you're considering the audiences and the people involved in the performance, and the people listening, and of course, his church music is very much about a living, real worship with congregation, you know. [This] is why you have these, quite clever really, these wonderful hymn tunes that were going through the music in these intricate chorale fantasias. But, you know, when he's also writing for Café Zimmermann and chamber music and stuff like that, it's often without text, of course. But this treatment with the trumpets and the French style suites, you know, I hear that kind of style of music across his oeuvres.

Alan McLellan So you don't think, he wasn't, like, you know, when we meet jazz musicians, they say, "Well, yeah, I do legit music as well." You know, this kind of sense of the one side as secular, the other side is sacred.

Jonathan Cohen A little bit maybe, but not too much. I mean, I don't know. That's an interesting question. I have to think, for example, if you take, like, the Gamba Sonata. Could it be construed as religious? Or, this is now I'm writing in a secular style. I mean, how someone like Bach is so intrinsically, foundationally religious in his life, I'm not sure that he viewed, Well, now I'm going into secular mode, because I'm not sure that he had a secular mode. I think for Bach, his faith was such an underpinning thing for his philosophy, for his life. I don't think that he would have had an idea that there could be a secular idea of the world. I don't know. Do you think?

Alan McLellan It was without that separation that we sometimes feel in our age, I think.

Jonathan Cohen Yeah. We hear it in Bach's music don't you? Such a conviction, you know, Father, Son and Holy Ghost. I don't think there was ever a thought that that wasn't the case. Do you know what I mean?

Alan McLellan Right. Absolutely.

Jonathan Cohen And if you think about life then and how death was very much a part of life, in Bach, of course, with many tragedies in his family and sickness around, this faith somehow became real steadfast vision, you know, underpinning everything. And I think that kind of conviction in his music is something that's, it's like a rock. It's like firmer than anything. So, belief and a real ... and that's like gifts, I think, that comes through in his music, and it gives us huge hope, You know, even if people are not sort of ultra-religious, we can still feel the absolute confidence and conviction in his music.

Alan McLellan And you can hear it in that orchestral suite, too.

Jonathan Cohen Oh, for sure. Yeah. I mean, it's actually a virtuosic, difficult piece of music, [with] high blaring trumpets. I think Bach had amazing trumpet players, if you think about it, when you do piece like Jauchzet Gott [Cantata No. 51], or you look at the high trumpet parts in the B minor Mass, they must have been incredible virtuoso trumpeters.

Alan McLellan They didn't have the valves, of course, so...

Jonathan Cohen Yeah, yeah.

Alan McLellan So I wanted to ask you about Buxtehude because Bach, I think, had a special relationship with Buxtehude in a few senses. He walked 250 miles, that's the story.

Jonathan Cohen Yeah.

Alan McLellan Anyway, tell us about this.

Jonathan Cohen Well, of course they didn't, he wasn't, they didn't have the option of hopping on the train or taking a flight at that point. So, I think is probably kind of normal if you were going to take a voyage to go by horse or foot or something. But yeah, Bach was, what, 20 years old, maybe, that point? And we have to remember that Buxtehude in his time was like a celebrity. I mean, his north German school of composition, he was super famous. And people came from everywhere, I mean Handel and Telemann visited the old Buxtehude. He was...

Alan McLellan We should just say that Bach chose to walk 250 miles to see Buxtehude and to hear him play.

Jonathan Cohen He would have spent some time there, right? I mean, I'm not quite sure exactly how long, but several months probably, just soaked up all the atmosphere there, because, you remember, Buxtehude created a kind of very active music church life with lots of stuff. He had a series of concerts called Abendmusik that he started, which were kind of experimental as well, doing some very large scale projects. Bach probably played violin in one of those concerts. He listened to and studied and watched and absorbed everything that Buxtehude was doing. And of course, Buxtehude was a bit of a trailblazer in his time. He was developing what we now call the stylus fantasticus, which I think, for example, in the cantata Wachet auf [No. 140], that movement I was talking about with the piccolo violin, the Holy Spirit winding its way around...

Alan McLellan Bach's cantata.

Jonathan Cohen Yes. So, you can hear the fantastical style of Buxtehude in that. There was a sort of free, almost improvisational type of composition that Buxtehude was really kind of quite famous for. So, I wonder if that would have been something that Bach would have picked up on.

Alan McLellan Again, Bach the great absorber, huh?

Jonathan Cohen Yeah.

Alan McLellan I wanted to ask you about Der Herr ist mit mir, the cantata by Buxtehude that we're going to hear. What is the character of that, that you could...

Jonathan Cohen Well, having spoken about the steadfast faith that Bach had, this is an example of the, I mean, the text is from a famous psalm, "The Lord is with me, so I shall not fear anything." And, you know, "What can man do unto me?" And "I shall vanquish my enemies." So again, it's a very forthright, steadfast piece, strong faith. And the music is like that. It's very vigorous and full of confidence and belief, almost bombastic, in a way.

Alan McLellan Yeah. Encouraging confidence in belief on the part of the listeners, right?

Jonathan Cohen Yeah. That comes through in the music, you know. Yeah.

Alan McLellan I wanted to ask you just what, in general, your vision of the Handel and Haydn Society is. You've had this appointment for a couple of months now, and do you have a sense of directions you would like to go and kind of an overall vision like, you know, five year plan or that kind of thing?

Jonathan Cohen Well, you know, we're still, I mean, I'm [Artistic Director] Designate so I start next year. But of course, I'm constantly thinking, there seems to be such a lot of opportunity here. This is America's oldest performing arts organization, but one which is constantly renewing itself. You know, we have, the orchestra is a period instrument orchestra. So, there's lots to think about, lots to discuss. One of the things that I'm very fascinated with is the education commitment that the orchestra has made. It has seven youth choruses, and I'm thinking to myself, How can we integrate? How can we work together? What other opportunities are there for education? How to connect in the community? Because one of the most interesting things for me, and the thing which I think drew me to H and H, was the strong feeling of connection and energy that the group has, and I, I love that. So, I'm thinking, how can we harbor that and take it on, you know?

Alan McLellan Right. I think that's been an emphasis ever since the period instruments emphasis came on, that there's been an emphasis on the community bringing people into this world of original instruments, authentic instruments.

Jonathan Cohen I really feel that, and, you know, [at] our concerts, I look around and I see an audience that is really kind of engaged with that and smiles on people's faces and the joy people feel from the energy of the music-making. And so, I think there's a lot that's possible with that goodwill and that support in Boston.

Alan McLellan Wonderful. Well, good luck with it. I'm sure it'll be a marvelous experience all around. And we're looking forward to hearing the music you create.

Jonathan Cohen Thanks, Alan.

Alan McLellan Thanks so much. Jonathan Cohen from the Handel and Haydn Society.