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H+H at 200


mendelssohnIt’s going to be quite a month for Boston’s oldest musical institution. March’s Bicentennial festivities commence at Symphony Hall on March 6th and 8th with Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Premiered in Boston by the Handel and Haydn Society in 1848, the work quickly became one of its most beloved. Elijah was the first work H+H performed in Symphony Hall and was a favorite of Artistic Director (1986–2001) and Conductor Laureate (2001– 2014) Christopher Hogwood who led triumphant performances in 2000 for Symphony Hall’s centennial. Elijah has regularly been offered as a memorial to great individuals, including the Prophet himself, as well as to such lesser beings as Prince Albert. The March performances are dedicated to the memory of Hogwood, who died last September. Former Music Director Grant Llewellyn leads the Period Instrument Orchestra and Chorus with bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams as the Prophet. Teresa Neff has some interesting things to tell us about the performance history here.

Then, on March 27th at the BPL Abbey Room, the Society’s cultural impact on the city of Boston will be examined during a panel discussion running 1–3 pm. “The Handel and Haydn Society: Past, Present and Future” will be moderated by the Globe’s Jeremy Eichler, and will include music writer Jan Swafford, H+H Executive Director and CEO Marie-Hélène Bernard, and music critic Donald Rosenberg. Subjects for discussion include how arts organizations can thrive in the 21st century and how education programs and community engagement are vital to their success. More on that story is here.

Inasmuch as the 200th anniversary celebration coincides with the departure of Bernard, we had an extended discussion about her successful nine years at H+H and her plans as president- & CEO-elect of the St. Louis Symphony.

LE: You’re leaving in top form at a dramatic time in the history of H+H. How were you so successful at expanding your subscription base, doubling your budget and making H+H fresh while also maintaining a board with some social cachet. I think it’s quite an accomplishment. And how will this experience translate to St. Louis?

MB: Thank you. That’s a good question. I think it’s my commitment to the music along with really working with other people, because without them you can’t create any success. So it’s not something I did alone; it’s really to understand what the pulse of an organization is and what the assets are. When I came, it was very important for me to really understand the DNA of H+H—what were we good at? And looking at the list of things we did and stop doing things we were not very good at. And then looking at the people who made H+H, and really building on their strengths. I will do the same thing when I go to St. Louis. You start with what you have; you’re not trying to change people, but what you need to do is combine all the elements that can make the success of an organization. Like a cook, you have to find a way to work with the ingredients. You and I could cook a meal with the same ingredients and it could come out very differently.

When I surveyed the H+H audience when I came, in 2007, I discovered the one factor that made concertgoers come to H+H was the music, the program, not so much for the conductor or the artist. We really looked at how we communicated the value of concerts and I had the team start talking about the music, because that’s what matters to the audience. With that came a change of visuals and then in the last two years we completely rebranded with a fresh look and new logo in advance of the bicentennial.

So it’s not the great leader model where your flyers lead with a very dramatic picture of a conductor?

That’s important, obviously: Harry Christophers has a great following among our audience. The quality of the performances is directly linked to his leadership and vision and abilities to bring the repertoire to such an amazing level. It’s the same with guest conductors, if you think of Richard Egarr a few weeks ago, who did a fabulous Beethoven First Symphony. The sheer energy and the way he communicated with the audience. That’s an experience within itself that will surely make a lot of the people in the audience come back. So I’m not saying it’s not important; I’m talking about ways to attract new audiences, ways to attract those single-ticket buyers and to ensure there’s repeat attendance, and what our patrons were telling us is the music being played is their first factor to make them choose to come. It’s also important to have promotional materials that speak of the music you perform.

To me, the “society” in the Handel and Haydn name is a very positive word and the experience that patrons enjoy with H+H is the intimacy. It starts with the customer service. They find that we are there for the patrons, that we want to make it easy for them to come to concerts, and that if something in life happens, exchanging tickets or doing something last-minute is always possible. But it’s a community of people that share love of music and it’s a community of people that has become more diverse over time. Today 30% of our audience is between 18 and 44. That’s a third of our audience and it’s pretty significant. It was about 16% and now it’s 30%. So there’s a sign that people between 18 and 44 have the appetite for this kind of music and enjoy coming to H+H. It’s a whole community of people coming from a more diverse background.

Is what you’ve accomplished here transferable to St. Louis?

I’ve been asked this question because St. Louis is much larger in budget size. But leadership is leadership and management is management. When you work with a larger team you do have slightly more resources, so there are things sometimes you can do, but with the size of an organization like H+H you have to be extremely mindful of resources and make sure you can really deliver what you promise with the staff and resources you have. And that goes the same with artistically what you do. And you have to be very clear about the strategic direction and get everyone to embrace it and to own it.

But you’ve not only good at understanding that, you’ve been very good at communicating it. Your mailings are extremely elegant and apparently very effective. The numbers, whether you say it’s important or not, have really increased. And your budget has doubled in eight years.

The goal was not necessarily to get bigger for the sake of getting bigger, so again, it was really focusing on the quality of what we deliver. For example, we expanded our educational programs quite significantly.

That’s more than just PR; you believe in that?

For example, we have about 182 kids enrolled in our Vocal Arts Program, which combines five youth choirs from age 6 to 18. The purpose of the program is deliver fine and inspiring programs for kids with solid instructors, inspiring and motivating conductors who can teach these kids to really learn the repertoire from Palestrina to James MacMillan and instill a love of music. What we did was really connect these kids to the live performance. Since 2007, we have been connecting students and parents to the core mission of H+H, and make sure they attend concerts. We are building audiences for the future.

Do you invite them to come for free if they’re in your educational program?

Always. We have an amazing turnout of parents, students and educators who are coming to H+H regularly, and it’s nice for them, and they can interact with Harry after the concert and see their peers. It’s a community of people we’re nurturing.

And that’s part of your next generation of audience too.

Absolutely, it starts young. We also need to bring those who have not been exposed to the live concert experience before.

bmh-messiahYou talked about your inviting graphics, and I think branding had a large role in increasing your subscription base and your attendance. It looks fashionable and exciting. Something you should be personally proud of.

We live in a society that’s a lot more visual. I don’t think that we have a society of good listeners. But people react to what they see. The goal was to listen to our patrons and discover the essential elements that make them come.

And compared with some early-music presenters, this is sophisticated, it’s visually exciting, and it’s not doctrinaire. You convey the sense that this is safe, this is going to be fun; even though it’s informed by great scholarship, it’s packaged in a way such that you will enjoy it.

Right, and I think that’s why we focus so much on diversity and inclusion, to make sure the music is accessible to everyone, and regardless of how much they know about it. That’s something I stressed with our board quite a bit initially. When people feel uneasy about how little they know, I’ve found that the only thing that matters is how music speaks to them. You can gain knowledge later. My only hope is, if someone comes to a concert knowing very little about it, that the experience they have with us is going to make them want to learn about it more. Something strikes your imagination and you go back and read about it and that’s how you build knowledge.

And you said you have an 80% retention rate among subscribers? Is there any age distinction among who’s actually subscribing?

Generally subscribers are slightly older but not by much. I mean, we still have over 100 young subscribers under the age of 40. The vast majority of our subscribers are mid-40s to 70s, which is understandable, because as people get older they are more in control of their schedule, kids are no longer at home, and they can make the commitment. I also see a lot of young professionals subscribing. .

What else in your eight years is really significant in the way the organization has changed?

To have built this amazing capital campaign—we’re at $10 million with a goal of $12 million, and I think we’ll get closer by the time I leave,vand to have planned the Bicentennial celebrations. It’s extraordinary what our team has achieved, securing the largest gifts in the organization’s history and celebrating 200 years of history in a creative, informative and accessible ways. We were able to put this organization back on track artistically and financially, to embrace a strategic plan that set the course for H+H through its Bicentennial.

And of course the Bicentennial—to be able to celebrate 200 years of H+H with such a variety of events, especially in March. Besides the concerts, which are mostly presenting some of the larger materials we premiered in our 200-year history, we are opening the exhibition in March at the BPL. Mayor Walsh has declared March 24th as H+H Day.

H+H has released around 8-10 recording projects since Harry became Artistic Director in 2009, which is more releases than the organization had produced in the previous 30 years. Building a new recording catalogue has been extremely rewarding to the institution. And we’ve developed a higher profile for the organization from a touring standpoint. We’ll work on a West Coast tour, which will happen this coming fall. There’s been much more awareness, all of these things together. I would say that there’s so much joy and confidence in the work we do, with the wonderful team of musicians, board, and staff. So the organization 200 years on, I keep thinking that Handel and Haydn, especially Handel, being such an entrepreneur, would be quite pleased that there’s so much joy and success in promoting their music, inspired by their own legacy. I think they would think it’s fabulous.

In terms of repertoire, you to stay focused on a certain range of music, not the earliest of the early and not very far into the Romantic. Your audience expects you to stay within this 200-year range?

Pretty much. What we always say about 1610 to about 1850. The audience has not been terribly enthusiastic for Brahms the few times we did it, because maybe it felt that that repertoire was more of the purview of the BSO. Hogwood did some delightful Brahms during his 14-year tenure at H+H.

Or they’re exposed to it in a different context.

Exactly. We didn’t do many Beethoven symphonies until Grant Llewellyn came in the early 2000s. When you hear Beethoven on period instruments, there’s a dimension to his works that’s completely new and can be breathtaking to rediscover his works that way.

This seems asymmetrical and unfair, because Mark Volpe has said, We would never do Messiah at the Symphony, that’s something H+H does so much better. And now you’re saying, We can do Beethoven in a way that the BSO cannot. I would argue that they could add something to a Messiah occasionally too, but are very deferential.

The way Harry does Messiah is spectacular. It’s a work we’ve done since our founding in 1815. Symphony Hall has been our home since 1900 and we’ve done it every single year since. Sure, I’m not saying they would not have anything to say about it, but I don’t think they need it in their portfolio of concerts to sustain their activities. They offer a full array of music with their very successful and sought after Holiday Pops in December.

But I think they will do a Matthew Passion from time to time. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. They did the St. John’s with Suzuki recently as they did a wonderful St. Matthew with Bernard Haitink a few years ago.

And with Ozawa some years ago.

And they do plenty of Mozart and Bach. We try to avoid too much programming redundancy in Boston so that our audiences are not offered the same works over again, although sometimes it’s interesting to hear the same works performed by various groups, in different styles.

A 1915 performqnce in Symphony Hall. This is what the cosiety looked like for the next 50 years.
A 1915 performance in Symphony Hall. This is what the society looked like for the next 52 years.

I’m a little disappointed that in your 200th year you haven’t looked back to some of your styles of performance in the 19th century, and some of the obscure works that were done then. It’s all in your history and wonderful book.

From our founding to the 25th, 50th, 75th, 100th celebrations, H+H commissioned a composer who in those days was either obscure or known to staff, and who remains not very well known today [works such as St. Peter by John Knowles Paine and the Forty-sixth Psalm by Dudley Buck, and the Mass in E-flat by Amy Beach]. I discussed this with Harry but there was lack of time for making it possible, for various reasons. We have chosen to honor and recognize those various styles, approaches, kind of the coloring of our interpretations over the years through several projects and performances. For example, the bicentennial book has a reference to these commissions and we are releasing a special recording (limited pressing) that will showcase excerpts from Messiah from our recent from Artistic Director (from Thomas Dunn to Harry Christophers).

All of the recorded ones?

Yes, but most are archival recordings, not commercial, from Dunn, Hogwood, Llewellyn, and Christophers. It’s quite fascinating to hear the differences. We’re commissioning Gabriela Lena Frank to write a 15-minute piece for 20 voices and period chamber instruments that’s going to be based on excerpts from the Boston Hymn, to be premiered at the Chorus America Conference concert at Symphony Hall on June 18th. The program is called “Handel and Haydn Sing,” and Harry has planned pieces by James McMillan and Arvo Part.

Clearly your singers and players are at home in a very broad range of periods.

Yes. When we celebrated Tomás Luis de Victoria’s 400th anniversary back in the 2008-2009 season, H+H gave a beautiful a cappella program juxtaposing the music of Victoria and Poulenc to showcase how these two composers, both inspired by their religion, wrote music that was blending so well together, despite their 400 year difference.

But you don’t have any plans to expand the base of H+H into even broader historic periods.

No. We commission new music from time to time, but do not plan to expand the repertoire significantly.

Was there any discussion about maybe doing a monster version of Messiah for the 200th?

No. Harry wasn’t a fan; I was not either. We did that quite a bit in the early days, especially when H+H celebrated its 150th anniversary in 1965. However, we will be giving free performance of Beethoven’s Ninth on July 26th that will include a much larger chorus than H+H, community choirs and Harvard summer choruses.


Yes, in Copley Square. It’s going to reach closer to 100 than the typical 30 or so that we would use. That’s a way to combine the large forces.

Copley Square in 1872
World Peace Jubilee in Copley Square in 1872

Of course the 1872 World Peace Jubilee in Copley Square had thousands of singers and players. But they didn’t have amplification.

[laughter] …We hope for good weather.

There’s one other thing we did that I would love to have reprised in the Bicentennial year. There’s no time, but I hope it’s done later, and it is the 1965 H+H commission of Randall Thompson’s Passion according to St Luke’s. I don’t believe it has been performed since its 1965 premiere.

Is there a recording?

I don’t think there’s an archival recording but it was commissioned for the 150th anniversary of H+H and performed at Symphony Hall. I don’t know if Thompson was there, I assume he was. [One recording is here.]

He probably was. Of course he has the distinction of composing the most-performed single choral piece.

We performed Alleluia at the funeral of one of our beloved board members and it was beautiful. It would be wonderful for H+H someday to perform all works commissioned since its founding 200 years ago, a project we could not do during this Bicentennial.


So what is your charge in St. Louis?

The charge and mission is to continue to develop new audience and ensure that the artistic activities of the orchestra can continue with solid funding.

Does St. Louis have a deficit? Are they in any danger?

No, they’re not in danger at all, but like any major orchestra they face challenging audience development issues. The St Louis Symphony is quite accomplished and I look forward to working with them to grow a stronger audience..

St. Louis is not Boston and you were talking earlier about perhaps taking the orchestra to the audience.

Which is true of any community. St. Louis isn’t as old as Boston but I was amazed at the amount of interest, the appetite for classical musicthat I found there. There’s great pride in having such a fabulous symphony orchestra.

Does St. Louis now play in halls other than Powell?

Yes. It will be interesting to explore the possibilities of continuing to perform outside Powell Hall, really develop that portfolio, and also look at ways that they can develop residencies. They have relationships with some fairly prominent American composers, so it will be interesting to see how we can develop that.

How about a great silent movie at the St. Louis Fox Theater with organ and orchestra?

Actually, they’ve done some projects like that, because Powell Hall was a former movie palace. It needs to be refreshed a bit, so there’s definitely going to be some capitalization projects. But what amazes me about that orchestra is their nimbleness. They can play John Adams very well and I know because they just won a Grammy, and I have heard them do other things that were quite extraordinary; they were very quick on their feet. It’s an orchestra with fabulous musicians who are very open minded and understand that we need to find an audience together, so I have been impressed with their willingness to embrace new projects. And you know I would say the same thing of H+H musicians, that they have been extraordinarily open to creating an experience for our patrons.

So your first task there is to increase the audience.

Oh absolutely, yes.

Do you know how full the houses there are typically?

It really varies. Some houses sell out and some houses only sell half. It’s a big house, it’s a little over Symphony Hall’s size [just under 2700]. You need to look at the menu of concerts and the timing of concerts, and at opportunities of how you can use Powell Hall to generate revenue that might not have been explored.

You may not need as many subscription concerts downtown as you were saying.

It’s going to be seen how many we’re going to have, and if you’re not at Powell, and if you’re playing out in the western suburbs, then Powell Hall can be rented for someone else. There are so many different ways to look at that.

Is it going to be an interesting experience hearing some of your beloved pieces, like Messiah and Elijah, done by a large orchestra?

I’m sure it will be. Bernard Labadie has been invited to conduct Messiah with St Louis this coming December. He is a good friend and a great collaborator, and I look forward to hearing what he can do with the work

Will they use a particular version?

You know, I have not found out. They definitely use a much-reduced orchestra and I’m going to press for even more reduced.

Marie-Hélène Bernard (Gretjen Helene photo)

I would go in the opposite direction. I would go with a re-orchestration if it’s going to be in a large hall.

It’s an interesting thing to look at, because you don’t remember when I was at Cleveland I was in charge of overseeing all the media activities, and we did release a Robert Shaw St. Matthew Passion that had been recorded with the Orchestra, I think it was 1965 or something like that. And it was fabulous. He brought the whole Chorale out, and it was an extravaganza.

So in the midst of the H+H 200th-anniversary celebration, you’re going to St. Louis. Are you going to convert that orchestra into an early-music gut-string and Baroque entity?

[laughter] I don’t think so, no.

You’re president-elect of the Early Music Society of America, are your tastes broader than that?


Does it matter in terms of your management skills what your tastes are?

No. I have my musical tastes go from medieval to heavy metal; I’m a music junkie, so I love country, blues, rock, pop. I now lack the time to make new musical discoveries. Early music is a core component of my musical upbringing: I just grew up with it, my mother was a harpsichordist, and I come from a family that’s so involved in early music that I will never leave that world; it’s just part of me. The fact that I was privileged to run H+H kind of happened almost by accident; however, I think that the energy and the joy that musicians embrace in the early music field is something we can definitely import into larger symphony orchestras.

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