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Hallelujah! Handel and Haydn Society's "Messiah"

Jonathan Cohen stands at the podium with his hand raised high above him. He gazes upwards and smiles.
Sam Brewer
Jonathan Cohen conducts the Handel and Haydn Society Chorus and Orchestra.

Sunday, December 10, 2023
7:00 PM

On WCRB In Concert with the Handel and Haydn Society, Artistic Director Jonathan Cohen leads the H+H Orchestra, Chorus, and a slate of spectacular soloists in a centuries-old Boston tradition. For the 170th consecutive year, H+H celebrates the wonder and joy of the holiday season with Handel's Messiah.

George Frideric HANDEL Messiah

Jonathan Cohen, conductor
Joélle Harvey, soprano
John Holiday, countertenor
Stuart Jackson, tenor
José Coca Loza, bass-baritone
H+H Orchestra and Chorus

This concert was recorded on November 26, 2023 at Symphony Hall, and is no longer available on demand.

See the digital program for this concert

Learn more about the Handel and Haydn Society.

Jonathan Cohen sat down with Alan McLellan to discuss the "thrill" of Messiah, and how it always manages to speak to the hearts of performers and audience members alike. Listen to their conversation with the audio player above and the transcript below.


Alan McLellan I'm Alan McLellan with WCRB In Concert and so glad to be visiting for a moment with Jonathan Cohen, who's conducting the first Messiah of his career as Artistic Director with the Handel and Haydn Society. But not your first opportunity to conduct Messiah?

Jonathan Cohen No, no, I've done Messiah a few times. It's one of the things you get to do a lot when you specialize in Baroque music as a conductor, because of course, it's one of the most well-known and popular pieces on the planet of this period of music. So it's not my first rodeo, let's say, with Messiah, but certainly my first in this great H+H tradition of performing it. I believe it's H+H's 170th performance of the Messiah. So, it will be a very special time for me to enter into this, this very famous Boston tradition.

Alan McLellan I'm interested in how it feels for you to be coming in and becoming part of something that's been going for 169, now 170 years.

Jonathan Cohen Well, it's a great pleasure and a great privilege, actually. It's a lovely chance for me. When working with the musicians, it really feels like everyone's very much at home with this piece. Everyone knows it. It's one of the orchestra's great party pieces, and therefore, already we start on a very high level of working the music together. And we can, you know, the last few days we've been enjoying really looking in the details and especially the theatricality of the music. It's a real pleasure to do that with them.

Alan McLellan And the experience of it is quite different from [Handel's oratorio] "Israel in Egypt," which you did earlier this season. Can you tell me about how Messiah fits in the context of all the other oratorios?

Jonathan Cohen Well, yes and no. There are some similarities and difference—I mean, I was noticing today, in one of the very beautiful arias "I know that my Redeemer liveth," it's the, uh, "and the worms shall infest my body," or whatever, and then the violins start doing this very wormy [Cohen sings] little thing. And I mean, it just shows the genius of Handel. There's something similar in "Israel in Egypt," you know, he's... As a musician, he's always trying to find ways to express the text in music, in a theatrical and inventive and creative way. And this is just what Handel is such a genius at doing, and it lives in this piece as well. You know, when the lines, uh, "the resurrection from the dead," there's a big scales up. I mean, I could take every page of the score and show you something remarkable about Handel's painting of text, and this is something extremely alive in this piece.

Alan McLellan Does his operatic sense have a bearing on all of this as well?

Jonathan Cohen Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, he's a natural born operatic composer because of his interest in that theatricality and bringing text to life through music, you know? For example, some of the sentiments of arias, like, very loving sentiments... "I know that my Redeemer liveth" is an example, I mean, you know that that could easily be an aria for a lover or a long lost friend or something like that. Handel takes what's very precious and emotional for us and then puts that really into the music. So yes, I mean the piece is almost set up a little bit like an opera and scenes somehow. So there's very much a sense of operatic... yeah.

Alan McLellan So tell me about your experience of Messiah. Did you get to perform it or sing it growing up?

Jonathan Cohen Yeah a little bit, I think, in school. And of course, everybody knows the "Hallelujah" chorus. And this is a very famous piece in Britain, of course. But now it feels like I've lived with that piece forever. It's part of the fabric of every day in the music-making somehow and I think probably in the audience's hearts as well, you know? They would hear a piece and I think people know that throughout time, and that's one of the pleasures of revisiting it at this time of year as well.

Alan McLellan There's something special about the way music speaks to the heart. And the familiarity of these tunes make something really special for individuals. Do you get a special response from audience members when you do this piece?

Jonathan Cohen Absolutely, just because it's well-known. So because of that, I think people are instantly at ease and they, you know, are able to sit back and enjoy that music in a slightly different way maybe than if it's pieces that they haven't heard before or rarely heard. But I mean, some of the ideas in this piece are quite extraordinary, actually. I mean, even if we know them very well, some of these pieces really are absolutely spectacular and very, very beautiful, very, very melodic. Some gorgeous tunes in the piece. I mean, Handel was a great melody writer. So I understand, I think, why it's such a famous piece.

Alan McLellan Yeah, the speaking to the heart, I think... I don't know, would you say that it speaks to musicians the same? In the sense that, you know, there's a bit of a contempt spread by familiarity [McLellan and Cohen laugh] sometimes. But I think in the case of something like this, I think there's something special that happens with musicians as well, isn't there?

Jonathan Cohen I think so. I haven't felt with this—well, I mean certainly not this week, certainly not with Handel and Haydn Society, but maybe with, you know, in some other places if that's been the case, that one's performed it constantly and people are wary, then I suppose that can happen. But the music is so inventive that you can find many different ways of doing it. And certainly for me, I mean, I think we found... I found new discoveries this week as well, for myself, and textures and some ideas which occurred. And that's the beauty of making music 'cause it's not like a painting when you do it and then it's done, you know? The great thing about music is that we reinvent the score each time in sound, in the moment, and that means a level of creativity and engagement about bringing something to life. And that's the joy of music making, I think.

Alan McLellan Indeed, no matter how many times if you've done it, right? These soloists are fantastic. Joélle Harvey we've heard in Boston doing this piece before and it's really wonderful to have a chance to hear her again. And you've worked with John Holiday as well.

Jonathan Cohen Yes, yes, yes. John's one of my favorite countertenors. Just lovely to work with, John—actually the whole cast. Joélle as well I've worked often with, and John, we've performed this piece together and some Vivaldi before. Stuart Jackson is our tenor, British tenor, who does a lot of Handel. Fantastic singer. And José Coca Loza is our bass who I had do it in Salzburg, actually, in the Mozart version. So it's nice to be with him as well this time.

Alan McLellan Oh, that's fantastic. And we're really looking forward to hearing all of them and the chorus. Do you find anything where you have to step in and and make a change to something that's gone on with the chorus doing Messiah in the past, or to put your own stamp on it?

Jonathan Cohen No, I don't feel like I'm... I don't think there's a set way to do it. I don't think they have a set way to do it. Of course everybody knows the piece very well. But you know, this is one of the most exceptional choruses, one of America's finest choruses. And they have such open hearts and a desire to make the best that they can possibly do. That's such a wonderful—for a conductor, an amazing chance to make music with a group of people like that, so... And the sound that comes! That's so exciting when you hear that first chord of the "Worthy is the Lamb" with the trumpets blazing up high and the chorus sounding fervent and exciting. So it's a thrill, really.

Alan McLellan Spine-tingling—

Jonathan Cohen Indeed! Exactly, yes.

Alan McLellan [McLellan laughs]—is the word that comes to my mind. Yeah, that's amazing. I was noticing that the intermission comes partway through part two. Is this an unusual way to do it or is this something you've done often?

Jonathan Cohen I've done that often. I think it works quite well. It's a sort of natural point, really, in the scene change before the tragic bits. It leads into that. But actually, you know there's often a problem with the piece in three parts. If you break after part one, it's sometimes a very short first part, and the same if you break after part two, it's a bit long. And so it sort of is a natural point. People do it in different ways for these oratorios. I find that works quite nicely and I hope people will not be too offended with that.

Alan McLellan No, I'm sure. I mean, it is the halfway point, or it feels kind of like a halfway point. And I think it's as logical a solution as any to that little problem, which is only just a logistical one. Yeah. So I'm really looking forward to this. I think it's just going to be a marvelous opportunity to hear something the same but slightly different in the hands of Jonathan Cohen. Thank you so much for your time and thanks for presenting with us.

Jonathan Cohen Pleasure. And it's always nice to talk to you, Alan, and thank you very much.