By Aaron Keebaugh
“What I love about H&H is they are hugely passionate. You feel their love and joy for this music. And they have such a willingness to want to go deeper, to rehearse.”
“I suppose at my core I’m a chamber musician,” the British conductor and multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Cohen said in a recent interview with the Arts Fuse. “Basically, I have a theory that all music before late Beethoven is really a kind of chamber music. As a keyboardist and cellist, I love to play with the musicians and guide the process.”
That intimate approach will carry the Handel and Haydn Society into the next phase of its 207-year history. Earlier this week, the period instrument organization named Cohen as its 15th music director, a role he begins in the 2023-2024 season.
Cohen comes aboard at a promising time for H&H, even in the wake of the pandemic. Following the 13-year tenure of Harry Christophers, the organization finds itself flush with cash and with a promising vision of the future. For H&H musicians and leaders, Cohen, who has led vivid performances with the ensemble in recent seasons, seemed an ideal fit for the top job.
“What I love about H&H is they are hugely passionate,” Cohen said. “You feel their love and joy for this music. And they have such a willingness to want to go deeper, to rehearse. That’s very palpable and it’s very motivating.”
At 44, Cohen is among the youngest conductors to lead H&H. Yet he has already amassed considerable success. He has won two Gramophone Awards for his work with Arcangelo, a UK-based music ensemble he founded in 2010. And he succeeded Barnard Labadie as artistic director with Quebec’s Les Violons du Roy, with which he has earned additional Grammy nominations.
His approach to music is as varied as Bach and Buxtehude, a program he led with H&H to open the current season, and reveals a surprising vitality and exuberance. “I believe music is an act of recreativity,” Cohen said. “For me, I like when music is full of character and drama and telling stories. I really like it to leap off the page.”
Cohen’s approach to historical performance practice is about making such music come alive. “Bach for sure, I suppose, is well known as being sort of a genius of intellectual prowess, unlike other composers,” he added. “But it’s not just about being clever, but [being] extremely honest. [This is] beautiful music which incorporates a lot of Baroque dance rhythms.”
“It’s from the body as well, it’s not just mind and the soul,” he went on to say. “It’s a fusion of all of those things in a way.”
“Jonathan understands that performing on period instruments is not an academic exercise,” said H&H CEO David Snead. “It’s about performing this music with the freshness and vibrancy of new music, regardless of when it was written.”
Snead also feels that Cohen is most suited to continue H&H’s current mission to connect and engage with a wider audience. The conductor’s plans to commit to six weeks’ worth of seasonal concerts beginning in 2024 will go a long way to helping realize that goal, he told the Boston Globe.
H&H musicians share a similar enthusiasm. “Jonny elicits a sense of musical freedom and finesse from the orchestra and chorus that enchants the audience,” said cellist Sarah Freiberg. “His collaborative spirit and energy radiate palpable excitement from the stage, adding a freshness and vibrancy.”
Cohen returns to H&H in December to lead a Christmas program featuring music by Zelenka, Handel, and, of course, Bach. It will be his fourth visit to Boston, a city he finds enthusiastic about early music.
“I find that the public and the audiences are so warm and open to the culture and music here,” he said. “And that’s a real encouragement.”
Aaron Keebaugh has been a classical music critic in Boston since 2012. His work has been featured in the Musical Times, Corymbus, Boston Classical Review, Early Music America, and BBC Radio 3. A musicologist, he teaches at North Shore Community College in both Danvers and Lynn.