Classical Music News: Jonathan Cohen Tipped to Lead Handel and Haydn Society

By Aaron Keebaugh

“What I love about H&H is that they are extremely passionate. You feel their love and their joy for this music. And they have such a desire to go further, to repeat.

Conductor, cellist and harpsichordist Jonathan Cohen. Photo: Marco Borggreve.

“I guess I’m first and foremost a chamber musician,” said British conductor and multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Cohen in a recent interview with the artistic fuse. “Basically, I have a theory that all music before the end of Beethoven is really some kind of chamber music. As a keyboardist and cellist, I enjoy playing with the musicians and guiding the process.

This intimate approach will bring 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 musical director, a role he begins in the 2023-24 season.

Cohen comes on board at a promising time for H&H, even in the wake of the pandemic. After Harry Christophers’ 13-year tenure, the organization is left with money and a promising vision for the future. To the musicians and executives of H&H, Cohen, who has led stellar performances with the ensemble over the past few seasons, seemed like the perfect fit for the top job.

“What I love about H&H is that they’re extremely passionate,” Cohen said. “You feel their love and joy for this music. And they have such a desire to go further, to repeat. It’s very tangible and it’s very motivating.

At 44, Cohen is one of the youngest conductors to lead H&H. Yet he has already racked up considerable success. He 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 of Les Violons du Roy de Québec, with whom he earned further Grammy nominations.

His approach to music as varied as Bach and Buxtehude, a program he led with H&H to open the current season, reveals a surprising vitality and exuberance. “I believe music is an act of recreation,” Cohen said. “For me, I like when the music is full of character and drama and tells stories. I really like that it jumps off the page.

Cohen’s approach to the practice of historical performance is to bring this music to life. “I guess Bach is well known as being a sort of genius of intellectual prowess unlike other composers,” he added. “But it’s not just about being smart, but [being] extremely honest. [This is] beautiful music that incorporates a lot of baroque dance rhythms.

“It also comes from the body, it’s not just the mind and soul,” he continued. “It’s a fusion of all those things in a way.”

“Jonathan understands that playing 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 believes Cohen is best 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 of seasonal concerts from 2024 will go a long way towards achieving that goal, he told the boston globe.

H&H musicians share a similar enthusiasm. “Jonny elicits a sense of musical freedom and finesse from orchestra and choir that enchants audiences,” said cellist Sarah Freiberg. “His collaborative spirit and energy brings palpable excitement to the stage adding a freshness and vibrancy. . . ”

Cohen returns to H&H in December to direct a Christmas program featuring music by Zelenka, Handel and, of course, Bach. This will be his fourth visit to Boston, a city he finds passionate about early music.

“I find the audience and the public to be so warm and open to the culture and the 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, Corymb, Boston Classic ReviewEarly Music America and BBC Radio 3. A musicologist, he teaches at North Shore Community College in Danvers and Lynn.

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