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With an ambitious vision, he takes the reins of H&H

Harry Christophers, new artistic director of the Handel and Haydn Society, seeks a “massive worldwide impact.’’ Harry Christophers, new artistic director of the Handel and Haydn Society, seeks a “massive worldwide impact.’’ (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / January 24, 2010

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No one can accuse Harry Christophers of setting his sights too low. The British conductor, who this weekend will lead his second set of concerts as artistic director of the Handel and Haydn Society, has big plans for the chorus and period-instrument orchestra.

“Let’s start with the East Coast, and in the end we’ll conquer America,’’ he declared in a recent interview, jesting in his martial tone but not remotely in substance. “And we will become a recognized force in Europe,’’ he added. When the subject of the organization’s 2015 bicentenary came up, he said H&H will be aiming for a “massive worldwide impact.’’

The words give pause, as these days H&H occasionally has trouble filling Symphony Hall (as many local groups do). But Christophers is admirably trying to raise the bar for the oldest continuously performing oratorio society in America. In his view, H&H must refine its artistry and heighten its national profile in order to compete with the finest choruses and period-instrument ensembles at home and abroad.

“In recent years, early music in Eu rope has grown by leaps and bounds,’’ he said. “I think people have to get very realistic and begin to listen to what period orchestras are doing in the rest of the world. We’ve got to work very, very hard. In music, you have to keep faith in what you believe in but you also have to keep on reinventing yourself every few years. We have the ability to do it.’’

Christophers’ constructive prodding comes in the wake of a challenging transition period at H&H that included three years without an artistic director, since the departure of Grant Llewellyn. In recent seasons, concerts have been generally well-received but a sustained sense of real creative spark has proved elusive. Performance standards have also varied. Christophers’ arrival then, could bring the organization a transfusion of energy and vision at a time when both are needed.

In person, the 56-year-old British conductor comes across as an affable and down-to-earth musician. He grew up in Kent, England, and his father ran a pub surrounded by hop fields. His earliest musical memories, he says, were sitting around the pub’s fireplace with local farmers singing Christmas carols accompanied by his mother at the piano. He later went off to choir school and worked his way through England’s remarkably extensive choral system, eventually singing professionally with the BBC Singers and other groups. As a conductor he is largely self taught, but that has not prevented him from achieving major success with the Sixteen, the London-based chorus with which his name is almost always linked.

Christophers founded the ensemble 31 years ago, not long after concluding his studies in music and classics at Oxford University. What began as a ragtag group of freelance singers grew into one of the most accomplished choral ensembles performing today, with an adjoining period-instrument orchestra, and a repertoire that runs from Renaissance to contemporary works. There have been rough spots; Christophers says he had to twice remortgage his home in the 1990s to keep the group solvent. But through the years, the trajectory has been consistently upward, with the Sixteen building an international profile and a large discography, launching its own record label (CORO) and instituting an annual “Choral Pilgrimage’’ tour, which brings pre-Reformation music to the cathedrals of the English countryside for which it was written.

The group’s success earns Christophers the right to be taken seriously when he articulates his ambitions for H&H. The big question, of course, will be whether the conductor, whose initial contract runs through 2012, can work his magic a second time, living on a different continent, in a fragile economy, coming in from the outside to lead an established ensemble.

While still in its early stages, the transition has not been seamless. Some orchestra members have privately lamented what they see as a new choral-centric leader sweeping in and calling for changes in their sound and their performance approach. September also brought the announcement that Daniel Stepner, H&H’s concertmaster for almost a quarter-century and a respected linchpin of the ensemble, will be stepping down at the end of this season to focus on his other musical activities.

For its part, H&H management says it’s not worried about Christophers’ ability to rally the troops behind his vision. “As an institution that has new artistic leadership, there’s always, always, always a certain amount of fear, anxiety, concern,’’ said executive director Marie-Helene Bernard. “We have to be super sensitive to that. But it’s normal, it’s change. At the beginning, there was also a perception of the change being greater than what it was.’’

But to be sure, Christophers will need to earn the full investment of a critical core of musicians if he is to realize his ambitions in Boston. Things appear to be heading in the right direction with the chorus, which was in excellent form for last month’s “Messiah.’’

“I’ve been enjoying it immensely,’’ said baritone Nikolas Nackley, “because when someone sets the bar higher, it really helps you achieve at that level.’’ Musicians who have worked with Christophers over the years in the UK also praise his personal accessibility. “He is the only director that I know who can slide easily from the role of director to the role of colleague,’’ Walter Reiter, concertmaster of the Sixteen’s period orchestra, said by phone from London. “When he gets up in front of the band, you know absolutely who’s boss. But Harry is not a disciplinarian - his power comes through the sincerity of his music-making. And as soon as the music has stopped, when you’re on break, or on a bus or on a train, he’s almost one of the lads, mixing with the choir and orchestra without any pretensions. I think that’s one of his great strengths as a leader - people actually like him.’’

From a programming perspective, audiences can expect a more historically circumscribed repertoire, as the conductor wants to deepen H&H’s approach to Baroque and early classical music rather than, as he sees it, spreading the musicians thin by reaching into the Romantic era. If Christophers gets his way, audiences will also see more physical movement on stage.

“This symphony orchestra thing about sitting still in your seat, that’s not Baroque music,’’ he said. “Most Baroque music is based on dance. You can’t stand still when you dance. You’ve got to really be expressive.’’ For one of the first performances he led before beginning his tenure, Christophers actually had the orchestra perform standing up. “You just want to release these people from the confines of their chairs, from being told by teachers through the years that you can’t move. We’re talking about making your body and your soul part of the music.’’

He’s also been prodding the chorus in a parallel direction. “I felt at first as if they sang with a blanket in front of their face. The sound was there, but there was no expression. If you’re a musician, we’ve all got to be performers.’’

More aggressive touring and more regional performances outside of Symphony Hall are also part of the conductor’s strategic plan. CDs are in the works too. H&H will be recording this weekend’s performances of Mozart’s C minor Mass with the hopes of pairing it on a future disc with Mozart’s Requiem, planned for performances next year.

Most important of all for the artistic growth of the ensemble, according to Christophers, is simply that the musicians get more opportunities to perform together. “At the moment the orchestra meets once a month for nine months of the year,’’ he says. “We’ve got to get better continuity than that.’’ He also wants the H&H chorus to have more prominence in the mix, and to offer more of its own programs. “Members of the chorus tell me they feel a bit unloved or passed by in recent years. I’m trying to get them back on equal pegging with the orchestra. I’m very pleased with them, I worked them very hard with ‘Messiah,’ and they were up for it.’’

Christophers will be around more next season, leading six programs, up from just three this year. As a new face around town, the conductor insists, he won’t be hard to get to know.

“It’s very simple, really. I love performing, I love people, and I love music. I shy away a bit from the limelight, but if I’m put in it, I accept it, but I accept it for other people. I come from humble beginnings, I just enjoy life. One thing I love about music is that the Sixteen are all my friends. And I do hope of my time with H&H that everybody will come out and talk to me, before a concert, or afterward in the bar. And if I can bring out in other people the joy that I get out of music, then I’ve led a very happy life.’’