“It sounds like I’m on the go a lot, but I don’t think I’m on the go any more than other people are on the go,” Jonathan Cohen said via Zoom from a Budapest hotel room.
The English conductor was midway through a few weeks’ worth of time-zone surfing. From his London home base, he had recently traveled to Canada for Vivaldi’s festive “La Senna festeggiante” with Quebec City-based Les Violons du Roy (-5 hours); then it was straight on to Budapest for what he called “a little Baroque program” with the Budapest Festival Orchestra and soprano Carolyn Sampson (+6 hours).
After that, it would be right back across the Atlantic to Boston (-6 hours), where this weekend he’ll conduct the Handel and Haydn Society’s orchestra and chorus in Handel’s oratorio “Israel in Egypt” at Symphony Hall, marking the start of his tenure as artistic director of the storied period instrument ensemble.
Perhaps it’s fortunate that Cohen enjoys life on the road. “I love traveling. I like meeting people, and making music with people,” he said.
Cohen also has musical projects in London, where his 12-year-old son lives, so he prefers to be away for no more than two weeks at a time, he said — but admittedly he breaks that rule “quite often.” Gathering people to make music just motivates him.
“I’ve always wanted to bring people together,” said Cohen. “Even when I was at uni, I was putting things on, because I’ve always thought to myself — ‘Oh, that tenor in the choir, he would be just super to do that piece.’”
Cohen was announced as H+H’s 15th music director last fall, succeeding Harry Christophers, who guided the ensemble through an age of expansion between 2009 and 2022 and now holds the title of conductor laureate. During Christophers’s tenure, H+H’s endowment roughly quadrupled, and during his final season, the ensemble received an anonymous gift of $10 million in the conductor’s honor.
At 45, Cohen is firmly on the younger side of H+H directors, but his resume is already replete with projects. The most notable of these is the acclaimed United Kingdom-based period instrument ensemble Arcangelo, which he founded in 2010 after countertenor Iestyn Davies mentioned offhand that he was planning to record an album of “something that people haven’t done,” for which he needed a small baroque group. Arcangelo, with Cohen on cello, made its debut on Davies’s album of cantatas by the 18th-century Italian composer Nicola Porpora.
“Arcangelo had a vast recording output in a very short space of time,” said Davies, who has now recorded five albums with the group. Once its name was out there, the ensemble “started to establish itself on the concert platform,” performing across the UK, Europe, and beyond, Davies said. This summer, Arcangelo toured South America with mandolinist Avi Avital.
Cohen was raised in Manchester and trained as a cellist, and his musical background is heavy on chamber music. Unlike several other prominent early music conductors from the United Kingdom, including Christophers, he doesn’t have roots in the Anglican choral tradition as a singer, though he did work as a church organist and choirmaster as a teenager.
However, Cohen’s background as a cellist has given him an understanding of how to work with singers, said Davies. “To be a good baroque continuo player as he was, you have to understand how singers breathe. You anticipate what the singer is going to do. You understand the text,” he said. “For Jonny, that’s exactly where his strengths lie.”
When Cohen’s career shifted toward conducting, Les Arts Florissants founder William Christie became a role model for the “way that he brings the theatricality of music,” said Cohen. Working in opera, Christie wanted to “find the essence of what a character is, and then push it to the furthest place,” Cohen said. “I think that’s what you probably get from having a lot of experience working in theater.”
Cohen had never heard H+H perform or worked with them before his three engagements as a guest conductor, with the first of these in early 2020. However, when he was here, the ensemble made a strong impression on him. During rehearsal, he said, they were able to go “quite a lot in detail,” because people had “a lot of appetite” for that kind of dedicated work.
“There’s a strong questioning ethic that I liked a lot,” he said. In both the H+H ensemble and its audience, he said, he sensed “an enormous wellspring of enthusiasm” for the music they were playing and historical performance in general.
So why debut with “Israel in Egypt,” a large-scale Handel oratorio, especially when Cohen is already scheduled to conduct “Messiah” at the end of next month? First, he sees it as a link between the Handel and Haydn, who also penned an enduring oratorio with plenty of tone painting, passages when the music directly reflects the text. “I can’t imagine that you could write ‘The Creation’ without hearing ‘Israel in Egypt,’ but that’s just my theory,” he said.
It’s also a “very monumental piece,” he said. “It’s composed with big arches, let’s say, in a kind of Gothic style. Double chorus, very colorful orchestrations, trombones. I love trombones.”
Asked why, he said, “They have a sort of nobility, and an expressivity. I love the sound of trombones doubling voices, and I think Handel probably loved it, too.”
Does that also have anything to do with the fact that they play in the same range as the cello? “Yeah, probably!”
HANDEL AND HAYDN SOCIETY
At Symphony Hall. Oct. 6, 7:30 p.m.; Oct. 8, 3 p.m. 617-262-1815, www.handelandhaydn.org