Long before there was an official Presidents’ Day holiday, people still gathered to celebrate George Washington’s birthday. Back in February of 1815, Washington had died less than two decades earlier and a local choral concert was organized in his honor. Also celebrated on this occasion was the end of the War of 1812.
It was possibly at this very concert that a group of singers, let’s imagine them in a festive mood, first discussed the idea of founding a new choral society. By March 1815 it had become official: The Handel and Haydn Society was established “to promote the love of good music and a better performance of it.” The Society gave its first public concert in December of that year. It has endured to become the country’s oldest performing arts organization still in existence.
“The founders truly had a vision that you build a better community by having a very strong musical and cultural environment,” said H&H executive director Marie-Hélène Bernard in a recent phone interview. “This desire to help build a better cultural life for the city just grew and grew. Now 200 years later, here we are.”
For the last several years H&H has been presenting anticipatory bicentennial programming, but the actual 200th anniversary season is now almost here. The Society today announced details of its concerts and other events for 2014-15.
H&H will again be anchoring its season with major works it premiered in this country, including Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” and Haydn’s oratorio “The Creation,” both to be led by artistic director Harry Christophers, who will also lead H&H’s 400th performance of Handel’s “Messiah.”
Christopher Hogwood, who holds the title of H&H’s conductor laureate, will lead Mendelssohn’s “Elijah,” and Richard Egarr will also return to the H&H podium with another Beethoven symphony. The ensemble’s concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky will be featured in a program that includes four of Vivaldi’s “L’estro Armonico” concertos as well as in a second program that includes Haydn’s Violin Concerto No. 1 alongside his Symphonies Nos. 7 and 83. And the H&H Chorus will be in the spotlight for a season-closing performance that will range from Palestrina to Arvo Pärt.
Additional public programming around the bicentennial will include an exhibit at the Boston Public Library and the publication of a new book on the history of H&H. The Society’s series of recordings on the Coro label will also continue, with new releases devoted to “Messiah,” and in the fall of 2015, “The Creation.”
It’s interesting to recall that one of H&H’s founders, an oboist named Johann Gottlieb Graupner, had performed under Haydn’s own direction in London, and Haydn himself had died only six years before the Society was born. In other words, H&H’s early focus included a lot of what we might describe today as contemporary music.
Over the years for various major anniversaries, H&H has tried to extend that tradition by commissioning new works, and it will do so again with two bicentennial co-commissions. According to Bernard, Gabriela Lena Frank will compose a piece for chorus and period instruments based on a setting of a text by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and British composer Stevie Wishart will write a Concerto Grosso with a prominent role to be taken up by H&H principal bass Robert Nairn. Both works will be performed in the fall of 2015.
Bernard also added that, for plenty of listeners, not only “new music” is new. “So many people are hearing even the older works for the very first time,” she said. “We hope the bicentennial can be a gift to the city of Boston.”