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The Story of the Exodus, through Handel's Music, from H+H

Jonathan Cohen conducts the orchestra on stage at Symphony Hall from the harpsichord. He leans over the harpsichord with his arm outstretched towards the musicians, locking eyes with the chorus that's out of frame and smiling knowlingly.
Robert Torres
Artistic director and conductor Jonathan Cohen leading the H+H Orchestra and Chorus

Sunday, January 28, 2024
7:00 PM

On WCRB In Concert with the Handel and Haydn Society, hear a tale of triumph over adversity. H+H's chorus and period-instrument orchestra are led by Jonathan Cohen, in his first program as Artistic Director, bringing the story of Handel's oratorio "Israel in Egypt" to life, with its buzzing flies, raging fire, and parting seas - all while reminding us to hold fast to hope.

Jonathan Cohen, conductor
Agnes Coakley Cox, soprano
Sonja DuToit Tengblad, soprano
Sarah Yanovitch Vitale, soprano
Teresa Wakim, soprano
Doug Dodson, countertenor
Katherine Growdon, mezzo-soprano
Jonas Budris, tenor
Stephen Soph, tenor
Gene Stenger, tenor
Steven Wilson, tenor
Woodrow Bynum, baritone
Ryne Cherry, baritone
Craig Juricka, baritone
Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra and Chorus

George Frideric HANDEL Israel in Egypt

This concert was recorded on October 8, 2023 at Symphony Hall.

Read program notes for this concert

Learn more about the Handel and Haydn Society

Alan McLellan sat down to chat with Jonathan Cohen before he conducted his first program as Artistic Director of H+H back in October 2023. Listen to their conversation with the audio player below, and follow along with the transcript underneath:

In Concert interview - Jonathan Cohen - Jan. 28, 2024

Alan McLellan I'm Alan McLellan here with Jonathan Cohen, Artistic Director of the Handel and Haydn Society. In your first season as artistic director, how does that feel?

Jonathan Cohen Hi Alan, thanks for talking with me. It feels great. I'm really looking forward to this first week. We're doing Israel in Egypt here on Friday and Sunday in Symphony Hall. And the rehearsals have been extremely exciting, you know. Fantastic sound from the orchestra and chorus and... absolutely thrilling. So I'm really looking forward to everything.

Alan McLellan Yeah. Last year we heard you in Bach, and this season you're doing Handel twice: both Messiah and Israel in Egypt. And can you talk about the difference between doing, you know, stepping up to do Bach and stepping up to do Handel?

Jonathan Cohen Oh, goodness, yeah! I mean, they're two giant composers of the Baroque, some of the greatest music of that century ever written. Both are different, actually, in many ways. I mean Bach was having a life very much devoted to the church, and some of the music that we're doing of Bach's and I'm performing in March with H+H in Jordan Hall, we're doing his "Actus tragicus" and Christ lag in Todes Banden cantata, so, music very much focusing around the mortality and the short brevity of life and contemplating, you know, deeper spiritual and theological issues.

Handel's music, which I always love doing also, you know, Messiah and Israel in Egypt both are biblical stories. This Israel in Egypt is, I mean, the text is the text of Exodus in the Old Testament. And Messiah, you have the Isaiah quotes. But somehow Handel, I find, is somehow a little more of a humanist. And his music, I think, is very pictorial and sensuous and playful, actually. So I love his imagination and creativity of finding a kind of sound tapestry through the colors in the orchestra. And for example, in Israel in Egypt you hear many, many, examples of nature. You know, the story of the plagues, I think, in a way, for Handel was a great gift, inspired his imagination. So you have flies zipping around in the violins and you have the rivers of blood and the frogs jumping around. And somehow I think, this probably might have also been a great inspiration for Haydn, who visited London and probably heard this piece.

Alan McLellan Yes, I think Haydn was quoted in some—with some superlative that I'm not going to be able to remember, but saying how wonderful this was to experience this. And as you say, I guess Handel was much more oriented to the dramatic and the theatrical and so this, as you say, made great opportunities for him to talk about frogs—

Jonathan Cohen [Cohen chuckles]

Alan McLellan —and locusts and raging seas and all of that, yeah. So of all, when you think about Handel's works, what makes Israel in Egypt special when you compare it to, say, you know, all the other oratorios? And... I'm thinking of, you know, works with chorus.

Jonathan Cohen So I think Israel in Egypt is special amongst the oratorios. It has this large, monumental, almost sort of choral style with double chorus. You know, you've got an orchestration which is large. There are trombones in this piece—Handel used trombones in Israel in Egypt and in Saul as well. I think there were probably three trombonists in London at the time because they were pieces written quite close together. So yeah, I think that identifies this piece as quite special. You know, the orchestral timbres and the sort of monumental nature of it and, that and the text being somewhat as a stimulus to Handel's great imagination.

Alan McLellan Yeah, the text surrounds the Exodus and the freedom of the Israelites from bondage. And I was thinking, as I thought about this piece, that there's resonance for that theme in almost any age in which this could be presented, you know? Do you think Handel had some kind of political or social thing in mind when he presented this work?

Jonathan Cohen I don't know. I'm sure that there were political motivations and wars and things happening around, and I'm sure those undercurrents are absolutely prevalent. But what I feel is I feel the pleasure of him leaning into, for example, something sinking in the sea and thinking, "Well how do I make something sink like a stone? How musically can I portray that with the falling arpeggio?" I mean, it's just, it's just genius, actually, how he's managed to create a picture. It's like going to the cinema in sound. And that's, I think, what such a great artist as Handel is preoccupied with. I think if there are political or... things happening at the time nationally that he wants to try and demonstrate, I think they come a very, very solid second to his artistic and creative imagination.

Alan McLellan The chorus is a huge part of this piece. And why do you think that is?

Jonathan Cohen Well, the chorus, I mean, thinking back to historically what a chorus is from the very idea of a Greek chorus, you know, an orchestra... It's the people, isn't it? And in this piece, we talk about a people. So it's the voice of the jubilation, the voice of their suffering. And Handel was a great choral writer. I mean, maybe more than any other. He stepped up what could be possible with choruses. And it's also, looking in this piece, you hear many memories of the past from him, you know? So like music of Gabrieli's style or Schütz or a previous century with the trombones. It's very much prevalent in this piece. There's areas of the music which he's really looking back to the past in the old tradition, you know, maybe inspired by the idea of the Old Testament and the Exodus from previous generations, you know, somehow. And then there are other types of choral compositions which are much more Italianate and, so, yeah, he really develops a whole panoply of approaches for chorus in a way that other composers didn't before him.

Alan McLellan Yeah or even—I was thinking even beyond, you know, when he went to do Messiah, the solos become a huge part of it. And in this case, there's a lot of solos in the final part of Israel in Egypt but before that, there isn't all that much.

Jonathan Cohen Well, one thing that you should know—maybe you didn't yet—we're going to do the version of the piece that Handel redid in 1757, where the whole first part is essentially reconstructed to include many more solo arias. In fact, everyone, all the Israelites in part one are quite happy and they're, you know, reverent in prayer and [it's] very beautiful, kind of almost religious, ecstasy music. And then the part two takes us then into the original, the Israel in Egypt that everyone would know, goes back in part two with the plagues and then Moses's song at the end.

So I mean, one of the reasons Handel revisited this piece, I think it wasn't so successful the first time around. A bit like "Theodora" and some of his [other] oratorios, I think, partly because a lot of it was choral music, like too much. It's all choral and part one, you know, was a bit dirgey and it was a bit too much the same. And it was long. So, as is typical of Handel, he's constantly reinventing things and improving and tinkering with things as a lot of baroque composer did, and changing things for different singers and artists and being inspired in different times by different people. He came back to this piece and I think, with a more experience in dramatic shaping over large scale works, changed things. And he was an old man, he was blind at that point, but he was constantly rethinking how to improve in his works.

Alan McLellan I was interested that, in your performance today, a lot of the singers for the solos are coming straight out of the chorus. And is that something that you would have expected Handel to have done as well?

Jonathan Cohen Possibly not, actually, in a piece like this. We know the singers that he employed and they had a lot of, you know, he was bringing Italian singers in, and he had his favorite collaborators that he used for certain voice types and... But I think for a piece like this, which is essentially quite choral-centric, and you know, I wanted to celebrate Handel and Haydn tonight for the opening of the season, so you know I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to get to hear some of the exceptional individual voices that we have in the chorus. And in the orchestra, too, there's such so many, so many beautiful step-outs there as well with the arias with trumpet and oboe solos. And so in a way, the piece is a really wonderful chance, I think, for everyone to appreciate H+H in all its glory.

Alan McLellan There's a whole number of them and it's quite remarkable. And I'm looking forward to hearing to hearing those. So back to your role as Artistic Director, what do you feel are the most challenging things about being the Artistic Director of this organization?

Jonathan Cohen I mean, the great thing about Handel and Haydn Society, which is a very illustrious organization over a long period of time, I suppose there's the weight of responsibility of taking up that baton. But also it's a very exciting challenge as well. You know, I think the organization has a very bright future. We have many concerts here in Symphony Hall and Jordan Hall, so I suppose one challenge is to find repertoire that's, you know, suitable for those different sized venues and to try and find a nice mix of different styles of music because, if you think about it, our repertoire is quite vast, actually. I mean, music from, I suppose, Monteverdi to Brahms is like the majority of the, of [Jonathan chuckles] modern history of music. So we have a lot of things to cover, a lot of things to do, and I'm very excited and ambitious to get cracking.

Alan McLellan Do you have specific ambitions, things that you'd really love to do that, perhaps they haven't done in many years? Or perhaps you've not done yet?

Jonathan Cohen Yes, absolutely! I have a, like a hit list, a wish list, and lots of things that I can imagine H+H doing. And I should probably reveal them at the right points in time. But yes, absolutely. I have things to do.

Alan McLellan That's awesome. You're also juggling several roles internationally. You have your Arcangelo organization based in London, and then you have Les Violons du Roy in Quebec, and H+H, and a bunch of things going on, and how... What is it like for you personally to be juggling all those?

Jonathan Cohen It's very exciting. I'm, I love collaborating with people. You know, I think music particularly is a very sociable enterprise and it makes me happy to be able to sit down with some music instruments and make some sounds with people and the more often, the better for me. And I seem to have been very lucky to find myself with some regular, sort of musical families. And, here in Boston, I feel also very warm and very, very glad to be making music with everyone here.

Alan McLellan Well, we're very glad to have you. Thank you so much, and I'm really looking forward to hearing Israel in Egypt. Jonathan Cohen, thank you so much.

Jonathan Cohen Thank you, thanks.