The New York Philharmonic is frequently called the country’s oldest orchestra . . . but it isn’t the country’s oldest continuously operating performing arts organization. The Handel and Haydn Society, Boston’s period instrument orchestra and chorus, was founded in 1815 — beating out the NY Phil by almost 30 years. Just to put that into proper perspective: James Madison, our nation’s fourth President, was still in office that year.
Since then, the “H&H” (as they are often called) has served up a number of important U.S. premieres, including Handel’s Messiah (1818), Haydn’s The Creation (1819), Verdi’s Requiem (1878), and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (1879).
The H&H also happened to give the first American performance of Handel’s Jephtha way back in 1855. Harry Christophers — H&H Artistic Director since 2009 — presents Jephtha in Boston twice next week, but not before taking the rarely performed Handel oratorio on the road to California. There will be performances this Saturday, April 27th, in Berkeley’s First Congregational Church, and on Tuesday, April 30th, at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. In addition, the H&H will also play a different Baroque program highlighted by Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in both Berkeley (April 26) and Campbell Hall in Santa Barbara (May 1).
In anticipation of their first Southern California appearances since a 1996 tour brought them to the Wiltern, UCLA, and Segerstrom Hall, Mr. Christophers kindly took a break from his busy rehearsal schedule and pre-tour preparations for a little informal Q&A via email with All is Yar:
CK Dexter Haven: Thoughts and prayers for everyone in Boston after last week’s tragedy. How did it affect the H&H and you in particular?
Harry Christophers: I think the events of the past week have been a shock to everyone. I was at home in England when the news flashed up and I couldn’t believe my eyes. Boston is not a place where you would expect such an outrage to happen. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those who suffered from this nonsensical atrocity. I also feel very saddened for the young men who are thought to be responsible.
CKDH: Will it change your approach to this tour?
HC: Music is the greatest healer.
CKDH: Given that you’re based in the UK, what attracted you to the H&H originally and led you to become its Artistic Director?
HC: H&H is a very similar organisation in terms of artistic output to my own ensemble, The Sixteen. Whereas The Sixteen concentrates on music principally from the Renaissance and Baroque periods with occasional forays into contemporary music, H&H is devoted to baroque and classical and I suppose it was principally the thought of being able to spend more time on classical repertoire and in particular the amazing symphonies of Haydn that was one of the main draws. Also when I first conducted the orchestra in Austria back I think in 2006 I realised that this was a group of musicians that I could empathise with.
CKDH: What makes the H&H special?
HC: Incredible teamwork not only from the musicians but also the staff who work tirelessly with great vision and total commitment. Our various boards and patrons are also amazingly supportive, always helpful never intrusive. Everyone has the well being of the Society at heart. The work that goes on behind the scenes in education and just generally trying to bring this great music of our heritage to a wider audience is amazing. The Society never sits back on its laurels; it is always thinking of new things and constantly reinventing itself. Above all the Society is committed to artistic excellence and bringing the outstanding music of the baroque and classical to life in I hope a manner that is approachable for everyone.
CKDH: Even though H&H gave the US premiere of Jephtha in 1855, these performances will be its first since 1867. Why did it take so long and why now?
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