Harry Christophers, artistic director of the Handel and Haydn Society, plans to step down at the end of the 2020-21 season.
The British conductor is in his 10th season at the helm, a remarkable tenure during which the company more than tripled its endowment, subscriptions increased by 70 percent, 12 commercial recordings were led by him (a 13th is being recorded this weekend), and a majority of the present roster of musicians was hired by him, including charismatic concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky.
“My approach is one of total camaraderie. We’re here to make music,” says Christophers during a lunch break from an all-day rehearsal in the South End. “I’m not interested in being a dictator, and my job . . . I see it as almost like a facilitator. You’re there to bring out the best in the musicians in front of you.”
Indeed, the company has seemingly gone through a golden age under his leadership. “I want to ask Harry where he keeps his magic pixie dust, because somehow he brings alive the whole group,” says Sally Bradford, Handel and Haydn’s vice president of marketing and communications. “People want to try for him. He’s very special that way.”
It is essential that artistic organizations reinvent themselves every so often, says Christophers, who also founded The Sixteen, an acclaimed choir and period-instrument ensemble based in the United Kingdom.
“I’ve been here 10 years. It’s time for the repertoire to be revitalized by someone with another penchant,” he says. When he took the job, he explains, he decided to focus special attention on the work of the ensemble’s two namesake composers, and he calls the music of Haydn “the biggest single revelation . . . and excitement” that he’s experienced through working with the ensemble.
He cautions against staying on the most well-trodden paths. “We can’t be an organization that panders totally to doing popular works. So I hope that [the new artistic director] will continue to introduce the Boston public to this wonderful range of music there is. The fact that ‘Messiah’ is not the only oratorio that Handel wrote, and that Haydn is as good as Mozart.”
Bradford says an international search is already underway to find the ensemble’s next artistic director. It would be preferable that the new director be ready to assume the mantle when Christophers departs, she says, but the group intends to “wait and make sure we find the right person.”
Christophers hopes that his successor will further the cooperative spirit he sees as vital. “I think the nature of the music that we play is such that it has to be collaborative. In order to bring the best out of the players and the singers, we need to inject them with an energy,” he says.
In the meantime, more than two full years remain before Christophers departs. His plans for the coming 2019-20 season include a Mozart celebration to kick things off, a Mozart and Haydn concert in January, a performance of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.
When he steps down from this position, Christophers will give up his only steady stateside gig. Back in the United Kingdom, he’s looking to focus more on his work with The Sixteen. “I’m 65 now. I’m not saying I’m not going to travel, but I don’t want to be living out of a suitcase,” he says, noting his desire to spend more time with his family and catch a few more Arsenal Football Club matches.
Nonetheless, he hopes to be invited back for an occasional guest slot after he leaves, he says.
“I’ve made so many friends here! Not only friends in orchestra and chorus, but patrons. . . . H&H office and staff, one forgets just how much energy and input they have into what we do,” he says. “I’ll be very sad to go, I really will, but I know I’ll be going leaving the organization and the music in a very good place.”Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.