Almost 200 years old, the Handel and Haydn Society has received a pair of unprecedented gifts that will strengthen the company’s chorus and educational programs for the future. The two $1 million contributions come from longtime supporters and will pave the way for a larger fund-raising campaign.
Gifts of this level, while uncommon, tend to occur at larger local arts organizations like the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and Museum of Fine Arts. But they are among the biggest for a local music organization with an annual budget of less than $4 million, according to a survey of groups such as Emmanuel Music, the Longwood Symphony, and the Boston Early Music Festival. The Handel and Haydn Society has a $3.6 million annual budget.
H&H, as it is known, is the oldest continuously performing arts organization in the country, founded in 1815. It premiered Handel’s “Messiah” just three years later. The group focuses on baroque and classical music with an emphasis on using period instruments. In recent years, it has shifted leadership, with the 2008 hiring of Harry Christophers as artistic director. In 2007, Marie-Helene Bernard took over as chief executive officer, succeeding Mary Deissler, who had held the post for 24 years.
Wat Tyler, a Newton native and vice chairman of the H&H board, gave $1 million with his wife, Jane, for the endowment of the group’s chorus. In an interview, Tyler made a point of endorsing the organization’s current leadership. He said he decided to give now because the organization’s budget is in the black, it is receiving praise for its artistic productions, and he wanted to spark a campaign to boost the company’s endowment.
“The timing was correct,” said Tyler. “Five years ago, I don’t think they were there.”
Tyler was also motivated by a sense that H&H’s work is underappreciated.
“You have symphonies, you have operas, you have everything around here, but there are not a lot of really well recognized baroque, early music [groups] of the caliber of Handel and Haydn,” said Tyler, who was CEO of IPS Corporation and director of
McKinsey & Company but is now retired. He will be honored in March at the organization’s annual fund-raising gala.
Karen Levy, a vice chair of the H&H board, on which she has served since 1994, finalized her $1 million gift just last month, not knowing about Tyler’s. The money will support the Handel and Haydn Society’s education and outreach programs. These include four youth vocal choruses, school visits by company singers, and a program to provide free tickets to local children.
Levy said she and her husband, George, who died in October, had talked about making a substantial gift after years of supporting the organization’s educational programs. She hopes it will inspire others to make similar contributions.
“We want to make sure this program continues for another 200 years,” Levy said. “It would be a great legacy to leave behind.”
Esther Nelson, general and artistic director of the larger Boston Lyric Opera, hailed news of the gifts and believes they signal a new trajectory for the Handel and Haydn Society.
“The most difficult part is getting the first million,” said Nelson, whose organization has solicited several gifts of that level. “Once you do, it attracts other major donors. I’m delighted. It allows them to build a stronger future.”
The gifts have sparked a plan by the Handel and Haydn Society to launch an endowment campaign, Bernard confirmed. The group’s overall endowment is currently at $3.4 million, not including the new gifts.
Bernard called the $2 million donations “truly transformative.”
“They encourage others to be even more inclined toward Handel and Haydn,” said Bernard. “It allows the organization to plan ahead and it also guarantees a future for the organization.”
The previous largest individual gift to H&H was $150,000 by an anonymous board member in 1993.
“Handel and Haydn has always sat a little below organizations like the Museum of Fine Arts and Symphony, where a million-dollar gift isn’t that great,” said Tyler. “I felt that given the sort of economic vicissitudes that are coming up and are with us today, the endowment really isn’t what it should be.”
Geoff Edgers can be reached at