Friday, January 29, 2010

According to Harry

I suppose that Handel and Haydn's new Artistic Director, Harry Christophers (above), had a right to look a bit - well, harried when I spoke to him recently (prior to their "Passion in Vienna" program, which opens tonight). I could sense that his honeymoon as incoming A.D. was over, and that the tough, hands-on work of bringing a new vision to what is literally the oldest continually-performing musical organization in America had already begun.

Still, Christophers was just as optimistic, eloquent and casually forceful as ever. He's a fighter, that's clear, in that quintessential British mode of light-touch-masking-steely-resolve. And he has a good idea of where he wants to take H&H - a big idea, actually. Christophers speaks matter-of-factly about a "world-wide impact," about future world premieres, about upcoming tours and CDs. The bicentennial of the organization (in 2015) looms, and by then he clearly hopes to have molded Handel and Haydn into a period orchestra and chorus to rival William Christie's little outfit in France, or Nicholas McGegan's in San Francisco.

This has meant, of course, re-affirming the early-music vision first instilled in the Society by Christopher Hogwood, who left the organization in 2001. Since then, Christophers notes, the Society has wandered as far into the nineteenth century as Brahms, and he worries that as a result its style has become a bit "diffuse." His goal is to back off from the Romantics, and concentrate instead on "a lovely balance between the classical and the baroque;" but one senses that balance may often tilt toward the baroque. Christophers is already insisting on a return to baroque bows for the Society's strings, and even means to abandon the modern standard of equal temperament for what he calls "a baroque approach to temperament" (by which I assumed - I didn't want to get into it! - some form of well temperament). And Christophers isn't just unafraid to embrace the softness of period music, he all but champions it, waving away concerns about the volume of period ensembles in spaces as large as Symphony Hall. "Modern orchestras basically play mezzoforte and louder," he laughs. "We've lost half the dynamic range!"

It's evident that Christophers sees his mission as one of restoration - not just of that lost world of pianissimo, but of a whole range of humanity that classical music abandoned over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. "When you're playing that loudly, it's hard to attend to different degrees of color," he notes. "And things get slightly metronomic, too - you lose the wonderful freedom, the ebb and flow of light and shade, the flexibility that the baroque had." And something else really gets under his skin. "Why is everyone sitting so still??" he sputters. "This is music based on song and dance! So why don't the players move?"

Not that we should expect the members of H&H to cut a rug at their next concert, he laughs; but Christophers has been coaxing them out of their chairs in recent rehearsals, and encouraging them to physically follow the beat, even if that just means leaning into it. "I had a lady once tell me after a concert," he smiles, "that she had come to hear the music, not see it." Christophers shrugged. "So I told her to close her eyes."

But it's Harry's "song" rather than his "dance" that has been rumored to give some H&H musicians pause. Christophers's claim to fame, of course, is "The Sixteen," the period-music chorus which he founded some thirty years ago and which has since risen to world-wide prominence. Today "The Sixteen" boasts its own period orchestra, too - yet it's not hard to see it as a kind of mirror image of the H&H model, in which it's no secret the chorus has long played second fiddle to the orchestra.

The moment I bring this up is the moment Christophers truly looks a bit exasperated. "You know, I don't think of myself as some traveling choral conductor," he says. "I'd get no pleasure out of that. Nor am I interested in simply transporting the sound of the Sixteen to America." He draws a breath. "You know, I was lucky enough in my life to have the opportunity to create an individual sound with a committed musical ensemble over a period of years. The orchestra was central to that. After all, I've been a clarinetist as well as a vocalist. Now I've been lucky enough to once again have the opportunity to create an individual sound. Only it's going to be a new sound."

Still, Christophers is planning to shine a brighter light on the H&H chorus, which vocal fans might see as merely setting a balance right that long ago tilted toward the instrumentalists. He's even thinking about a "project" for just the chorus next season, perhaps at a local church venue. And you can feel his usual intense attention to detail in his discussion of the chorale. "You emphasize your consonants too much in America," he mutters. I had to smile at this, as Christophers has brought to the H&H chorus a superb sense of diction. "Well, yes, of course you have to say them, you have to make the sounds!" he laughs. "But not at the expense of the phrase, of the arc of its meaning." And just as he's been coaxing the musicians out the chairs, he's been teasing the singers into a franker sense of emotion. "I tell them, 'Don't sing as if there were some sort of curtain between you and the audience!' Be present, be alive - use your eyes - connect!"

Of course even if Harry gets his way, will the Boston public follow? He's clearly been immersed in the vibrant European early music scene for so long that he takes it for normal. But in America, while the period music movement has more than made its case among the cognoscenti, the public doesn't seem to have come along for the ride. Most Bostonians, for example, seem unaware that the BSO, like most nineteenth-century orchestras (and yes, that's what it is), rarely programs anything earlier than Mozart, and that skirmishes in our concert halls regularly break out over the proper playing of composers even as late as Beethoven. In fact in Boston, oddly enough, the big classical news over the past twenty years has been our elevation as a hotbed of period music research and performance - but the old money in town (and the press) have pretty much ignored or downplayed the whole story. There's no regular period performance on the radio, for instance, and while the Boston Early Music Festival regularly draws scholars from all over the world, the city itself seems barely aware of its own prominence in this burgeoning field. It's as if we'd been winning the pennant for years, but the press hadn't deigned to notice.

What could change all that? For once Christophers seems to have a little trouble with his answer. "Well, it's going to be gradual," he finally offers. "And I think it's going to be hard," he allows. "I'll have to be here more, we'll have to do more. But somehow we're going to get there. Yes, somehow we'll get there."

And as I look into his eyes I see it again: Light touch. But steely resolve.

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