Marie-Hélène Bernard has been the executive director and CEO of the Handel and Haydn Society since 2007. She got her early-music stripes as a professional viola da gamba player, and later held management positions with the Philadelphia and Cleveland orchestras. She came to H&H from the Canton Symphony Orchestra, where she was president and CEO.
Bernard spoke to the Globe about H&H’s past, plans for its bicentennial season, and what its future holds.
Q. A bicentennial is a remarkable achievement for any arts organization. To what do you attribute H&H’s longevity?
A. The organization went through several phases. I think having been first established as a choral society, where everyone could join after an audition, made it so that these volunteers were so committed to music making and to the organization that they kept it afloat for that long. . . . Later we started premiering all these great oratorios, often with a chorus that had hundreds of singers. And then the rededication in the ’60s, when Thomas Dunn came and refocused the mission more toward early music, and then later Christopher Hogwood, truly defining our repertoire from Baroque and classical.
But I think the common denominator through these 200 years is the people of Boston — these businesspeople, musicians, the visionaries who really kept it afloat. If you think that it never stopped performing during the two great wars, the Civil War, the Depression . . . this organization has always kept going.
Q. What prompted the fundamental change from being a large amateur chorus to an elite professional ensemble dedicated to historically informed performance?
A. When Thomas Dunn came on board in 1967, it was an opportunity. He was still open to a lot of new music, and for years continued to perform a broad repertoire. But his interest in early-music performance led to the transformation of the chorus from a large, amateur group to a smaller, professional ensemble of 30-some voices that would have been what the composer at the time would have written for.
The board members, the ones who later invited Christopher Hogwood to lead this organization, were just visionaries. They saw, here’s someone who has spectacular talent, who’s coming with new ideas about how to perform that music, and going back to our roots, Handel and Haydn. It’s like these great marriages — sometimes you can’t predict how great it’s gonna be. But it just happens, like magic.
Q. So what are you doing to celebrate the bicentennial?
A. Quite a bit. First of all, we’re presenting a very full season that includes those great oratorios that we premiered in the US or Boston in the 19th century. So of course, Handel’s “Messiah,” which we introduced in 1815, and gave the US premiere in 1818; Mendelssohn’s “Elijah,” which is very important in our history, we gave the Boston premiere of that in 1848; Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” US premiere in 1879; and of course Haydn’s “Creation,” US premiere 1819. And we are just releasing a recording of “Messiah” with Harry [Christophers]; it is our first recording of the piece on period instruments with the artistic director. We are also recording “The Creation” this season, to be released in the fall of 2015.
Then there’s a 250-page coffee-table book that will be available in early October. And then an exhibition at the Boston Public Library, which is opening March 24, the actual anniversary date of our founding. It’s an interactive family exhibit that really tells the story of 200 years of music through H&H, seen through the eyes of Bostonians. . . . And finally, a free performance of Beethoven Nine in the community. I believe we gave the Boston premiere in 1853, so it’s fitting that we are giving it as a free concert to Boston.
Q. The three programs that conclude the regular season are three large oratorios. They’re important because of H&H’s role with those pieces, but they also point up the chorus’s importance in its history.
A. Absolutely. I think with Harry’s appointment in 2008, the organization has really refocused around his vocal mission. And I think singing has kept communities together. It goes back to your first question: This organization has been around 200 years because singing beings people together — there’s almost a religious experience for some people in the act of singing. And these three programs show the range of repertoire that our chorus can sing.
Q. There will be something of a shadow in this celebratory season with the recent passing of Christopher Hogwood, who was to lead “Elijah” in what would have been his first H&H performance since 2008. He played such a large role here.
‘I think the common denominator through these 200 years is the people of Boston — these businesspeople, musicians, the visionaries who really kept it afloat.’
A. I wish he had been with us for the entire celebration. And “Elijah” was programmed for him, because it’s one of his signature pieces. I think it’s very fitting that Grant Llewellyn is able to do this concert, having followed Hogwood here as artistic leader. But I would want to celebrate Hogwood and say that the imprint that this man has had over the last 30 years is extraordinary. And not just with us, but in forming and training an entire generation of listeners and musicians. A lot of us came to early music because of this man. I’d want to celebrate him and not see this as something casting a shadow on the celebration, because I don’t think he would have wanted that.
Q. What role does public education play for H&H?
A. It’s huge. I would say education comes close to 20 percent of our total budget and activities. We always say that we reach out to 10,000 children every year, and it’s beyond that if you count schools, teachers, music educators, and parents. It’s entirely focused on vocal training, and there are several components to it. The five youth choruses we have, you’re going to see them on stage, singing with our professional ensemble. We also work with high school choirs, so in February, we’ll have high school choirs from seven or eight communities; the kids have started working on repertoire now, and get to sing in front of our audiences . . . For these kids to have the experience of singing in public, setting foot in Jordan or Symphony Hall, and to bring their parents to hear them, and discover that there’s a musical world out there for them to discover and enjoy — I think that’s positioning H&H as an inclusive, accessible organization.
We started last year school residencies, and this year we’re going to go to four Boston schools and provide weekly instruction for some classes. . . . Finally, we have a program for young high school students who want to continue solo repertoire; they take classes that we arrange and subsidize. So it’s a fairly broad vocal program that allows kids K-12 to basically learn music and sing. And then at the college level, we work with NEC conductors enrolled in the master’s program. Three of them get to shadow Harry and our guest conductors. And we also do a lot of coaching at MIT and lectures for adults.
It’s a very broad program, and [it’s] education seen in a sense of very broad in terms of age range. I don’t think there’s an age to learn music; we have something for everyone.
Q. Every organization has to adapt to stay relevant, even one that specializes in art that’s hundreds of years old. As you mark this occasion, what future evolution in H&H do you foresee?
A. I’m very excited about the future of this organization. I think that there’s a lot of repertoire we haven’t done, there’s a lot of people who haven’t heard us, there’s a lot of community education that can take place. I think that H&H today is not so different from what it was in 1815. I think the vision the founders have is no different than what brings us to music today: a commitment to making this community a much better community through music. There’s an amazing new generation of players and singers, and I think the field is going to continue to evolve, to find new opportunities to bring music to people in new ways. So I think there’s quite a brilliant future for this organization.Interview was condensed and edited. David Weininger can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.