Harry Christophers, one of today’s finest Handel interpreters, promises to deliver an emotional wallop in the master’s big and dramatic three-hour oratorio Saul. Acclaimed baritone Jonathan Best sings the title role of the Israelite king who reluctantly yields his throne to David. A triumph at its 1739 premiere, Saul receives its first-ever complete H+H performance on Friday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 3pm at Symphony Hall. Tickets here.
Period Instrument Orchestra and Chorus with Frances Kelly, harp; Jonathan Best, bass-baritone (Saul); Iestyn Davies, countertenor (David); Robert Murray, tenor (Jonathan); Elizabeth Atherton, soprano (Merab); Joélle Harvey, soprano (Michal)
FLE: Handel was a creature of the opera house to begin with, yet because of changes in taste, and because of censors and religious objections, he created his English oratorio style. How different really is Handel’s oratorio from his opera?
Harry Christophers: Not very different, that’s the principal thing. Handel was an incredible businessman and, as a Brit, you know, gosh, we’re so thankful for Handel coming to our shores and doing something about our dearth of music. And as you say, the English public began to get fed up with opera and they wanted something slightly different. For him to dream up the idea of Biblical oratorio subjects is incredible, but I’m a firm believer in the fact that he never ever left being a man of opera, because what he brings to the oratorio is his incredible insight into character.
Saul is the first major oratorio he wrote in England and actually probably one of the biggest orchestrally, but it’s that sense that the libretto is still there and the stage is still there in his mind. Most of those oratorios are sort of ‘day in the life’. Take Samson, it’s the last day in his life, but in the three hours we watch and listen to him, you get insights into Samson himself, into Delilah and into Manoa. Here in Saul this incredible … you know this way Handel winds up his Saul and through his orchestral writing actually begins to make Saul rage, then he turns that rage into hatred and that hatred into madness and toward the end that madness turns into actually acceptance of his lot in life. But he is never, never going to shy away from being the king. You know that’s just one element. That’s just the major character.
Do you think this is King Lear?
Oh God, yes. It’s a pity that the libretto’s not quite as good! But you can see why so many wonderful theater directors, opera directors, take oratorio onto the stage and make wonderful productions out of it. Peter Sellars has just done a wonderful production of Saul at Glyndebourne last summer.
You mentioned Sellars in the context of Saul, so I have to mention that he did it with a Boston chorus about the time he was bringing Vanessa Redgrave to read with the BSO. In his slightly staged Saul he asked the chorus of Israelites to fight and writhe over loose change on the floor.
Really I didn’t know that: good Lord.
It had something to do with political policy and Israelis, and of course the choristers refused to do it. So there was some unpleasantness.
His amazing one [20 years ago] was Theodora. I think he transformed the whole idea of oratorio onstage with that production at Glyndebourne.
Did he change the book?
No, no, but it was a very, very modern production. It was incredible for the way he used the chorus in the production. The difficulty of putting oratorio onto the stage is actually for the chorus, because it’s the most difficult thing to learn. If you look at Handel’s operas, the chorus has very little to do if anything in some of them, but in the oratorios their parts are phenomenally demanding. The counterpoint is great and no bar is quite the same, so that imitation so very difficult to learn. And Sellars put this whole series of actions and choreography in them that actually was a bit like sign language, sign-interpreting the music; it was very clever. But you know it’s interesting what the English public will like at the time and of course two secular oratorios, Semele and Athalia, were both disasters—too much sex and all that sort of thing. But the oratorios of course were perfect. The Old Testament stories remain fascinating today, in the same way as Shakespeare. You can interpret it in so many different ways and bring so much of it to things that happen in the modern day.
Yet at the same time it doesn’t need the staging.
Especially in an approach like yours, which really seems attentive to the emotion and the narrative.
I need to go through the process of putting these works on the stage, so when I first did Saul, and for most of the Handel oratorios I’ve done, the very first time I’ve done it, I’ve done it in the stage version, in the depths of England. The beauty of opera is being able to work with singers for weeks on end and you’re getting into it and finding ways into the character. Sadly, when you’re putting on concert versions you don’t have the time to do that. So here, I’m in bringing oratorios to Boston with H+H that I know sort of inside and out and I know what I want to do. And the cast I bring, most of whom I’ve already performed with in some way, can respond to all the stretching.
You seem to be more interested in more than merely the dotted rhythms.
Oh my God, you bet! Funny enough, that was one of the reasons all those years ago, I started the Sixteen. We could take the time to introduce ourselves to pieces we’d never heard of before. It started making us look into Handel, Purcell, Bach in a different way. But what was happening is that you were getting many, many performances of particularly Handel oratorios, where they were just a collection of 58, 62 movements. Each movement had lots of style, beautiful style, lots of wonderful things going on, but there was no continuity, no sense of drama. There was no sense of how to approach the end of the oratorio, how you’re going to set this out, and most Handel oratorios are slow-moving and the drama escalates. Actually Saul isn’t slow to start, you’re thrust straight into massive choruses at the beginning. David’s killed Goliath; you’re already there. Then you have to find ways to get from the end of a chorus into a recit, from a recit into an aria, to an aria … and there’s no formula except by taking the libretto and taking the text and making the text work for you. Handel does this for us; you just gotta to trust in him.
Have you ever needed to stage Messiah to get into his character?
That’s the only one that’s different, isn’t it? Because you’ve got many, many choruses to the number of arias. It’s a totally different beast in many ways, and all the text is from the Bible.
The chorus is a character.
The chorus is a character, yeah! Jennens doesn’t get enough praise really, because that libretto is just brilliant. And yes, as you say, the chorus are the pivotal role and they take on so many different personalities in that. Whereas, of course, here in Saul, his first oratorio, they take on the character very much of a Greek chorus, commenting on what’s just happened and bringing that to the people, you know, the end of Part 1. It’s a shock and you know it’s sort of saying to people, “What the heck’s going to happen?” And you had to end oratorios in Handel’s day. All the terror and madness and rage and murder and everything and battles, all forgotten.
Do you think, when you are talking about the early-music movement of the ’50s and ’60s, that they were probably reacting against the big honking Parrys and Waltons and Beechams? Then, later, you are reacting against the ’50s-’60s dudes.
I remember I was glad and all that sort of things only from choir school. I didn’t have music in my family. Although I was introduced to music at a very early age, I was 9 when I went to Catholic choir school and I was suddenly thrust into the world of Cathedral music, it was just amazing, you know, phenomenal! And one of the beauties, you look back on those days, you don’t appreciate it at the time, but I look back on the organist and choirmaster who was a total maverick. I didn’t know that then. But he was amazing. There was a boys’ voice service on a Thursday, so we, all the boys, 36, 40 of us, we all sang that evensong on a Thursday. Adam Wicks didn’t put down timid little pieces for an anthem. We did the arias from Handel oratorios from Bach passions; alto ones and soprano ones—40 kids singing, so we got the enjoyment of singing. When I reached senior school, I sang, I played the clarinet and played sport, and it wasn’t really until I got to Oxford that I started realizing more about music. My tastes in music, my repertoire, were limited at school to clarinet pieces. I played Mozart, Brahms, Poulenc, whatever, Busoni, a lot of hard rock; a lot of Led Zepplin, Black Sabbath, all those sorts of things. I remember a secret meeting at school, one kid going, you know, he must have been 16 or 17, saying, “Come, you gotta listen to this piece!” and it was Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, you know! This was 1969.
It was a revelation?
My God, it was total revelation. I was sold, straightaway! But when I went to Oxford my loves were Liszt; I got into all sorts of Mahler, but through Oxford I got a love for Renaissance music. We sang stacks of it. You know, I really started thinking that Byrd, Tallis, Sheppard, White, Victoria, Palestrina, Lasso, Josquin, all these composers, wow, fantastic! But I didn’t hear my first full performance of Messiah until I left Oxford. I’d never heard him before except that I might have sung, as a rather bad tenor, the odd aria from Jephtha or Samson or something like that … but I know you know I didn’t work on them. I studied music at the end of Oxford but I didn’t go on to study music.
You took minor orders, apparently, when you were a vicar at Westminster Abbey?
No! That’s one of these wonderful British terms! I sang in the choir and we were called lay vicars. It had bugger at all to do with the priesthood! (laughter) that’s so funny…. I tell you what it was, a great name, because when I was trying to rent a flat and they asked, “What’s your occupation?” I said, “I’m a lay vicar” and I instantly got it, because the agent had no qualms about it: I was a reputable person. But I didn’t inform them the next year, ‘I’m a singer.’
I note that your four-part name includes Tudor. Are you in the line of succession?
My mom was from a well-known family. Mum and Dad got married in the war, and my dad was from a farming family from Devon. It was a classic case of nouveau poor upper-class meeting lower-class. But our family tree does go all the way back to a Tudor earl in Glendower whose first wife married Henry VII.
Do you want to restore that dynasty?
No! My mother’s family has a lot to answer for. I’ve been called Harry from birth and then of course my dad goes off to sign the ol’ thing and he’s called Richard so he decides put Richard in front of it and call me Richard Henry Tudor, so I’m vested with these names, none of which I’m called! (laughter) Parents! They’ve got a lot to answer for, you know?
Now you mentioned your sort of transgressive love of rock music, do you model Mick Jagger in your style of conducting? Because you do cover more space than would be enclosed by a normal platform.
I think it was Richard Morrison of the Times who called me the Mick Jagger of early music, but anyway, I’m very pleased with that. I’ve never used a podium and neither does Simon Rattle. We both wanted to get in amongst. That’s the thing about period music: there shouldn’t be any hierarchy.
Meaning no one needs to conduct?
My position is to bring the best out of what’s happening in front of me and to mold it. These players know far more about their respective instruments than I could ever know in a month of Sundays, which is great. It’s a marvelous way of feeding off each other.
Did you start out, would you say, as a choral man? I see you drawing beautiful arcs in the air the way a choral man does and an orchestra leader doesn’t as often?
I was a singer and I spent the first six years of my career as a singer and yes, I formed the Sixteen, and that’s still going wonderfully strong, so I’ve sort of been branded, and I don’t mind being branded as a choral person. But I actually ever conducted only one choir, until I came here; I don’t do choirs. So in that sense I’m not a choral man, not like Eric Ericson or Willcocks. Those people are brilliant; they’ve spent their lives going around conducting various choirs.
Is that a ghetto?
It’s a world I’m not interested in much. But what I did do very early on, when I was still singing and wanted to conduct, I went to conduct smaller orchestras in Europe—actually most of them now are terribly well-known, it’s great. I remember conducting at the very early stage with Avanti! Chamber Orchestra, which Esa-Pekka Salonen had just formed in Finland and also Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, now conducted by Daniel Harding. All were embryonic orchestras in those days, and so those sorts of chamber music orchestras, they had a love for period music but also contemporary music, and that was just what I wanted to do. To produce programs that had contemporary and early music. So most of my conducting always had a mixture of Britten and Stravinsky and Henze and things like that, plus programs which reflect back on to earlier stuff. As I say, I was very lucky: I sang for three years in the BBC Singers, which strangely enough I didn’t want to do. I’d left Westminster Abbey and I wanted to conduct; I wanted to sort of devote myself to building up the Sixteen and then the manager and conductor of the BBC said there was a tenor vacancy, and said, “Harry, would you like to become a member of the BBC Singers?” and I said, “John, I don’t really want to sing. I don’t get any satisfaction out of singing anymore. I want to build up my conducting” and he said, “Come on, Harry, you just got engaged, you just bought a flat, you know you’ve got to live.” I said, “Yeah, well, okay, but, uh …” “We’re gonna pay you a salary, you can be away as much as you want to conduct; we’ll support you.” And I thought, “Oh, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” It’s amazing how fate dictates your life, really, so I sang for the best part of three years with the BBC singers. I worked with the likes of Boulez, Rozhdestvensky, Ozawa, Norrington. Boulez thought we were the bee’s knees. We recorded all the Schoenberg male voice songs, which are ridiculously difficult. Because that’s one thing about the BBC Singers: we could all sight-read. You put a piece of music in front of us and we were what you call dial-a-note people: we could just read it and it was amazing. But through it I learnt many other things, from watching these guys conduct. I also learnt a lot about how not to conduct by the people who weren’t so good. Moreover, I learned more about how not to rehearse from the majority of people who didn’t know how. Conductors who get singers going till 5:30, and the just one more time, just one more time … you get to the performance and there’s nothing more to give and you’re all bored. There’s no spark. What for me keeps Messiah alive for me, 200-300 performances later, is that I don’t have to rehearse it that much.
You use different soloists a lot, so you actually need to rehearse with them. Do you just accompany them?
Well, a little bit of both. I have been a singer. I can sort of tell what they can do or what they can’t do. So I know maybe how far to stretch them in a tempo slower or faster or whatever it is. When you hear a bass, for instance, having difficulty getting around the “Nations” or something and they say, “Well, I’d like to have it a little bit faster…” I’d say, “Let’s try it a little bit slower, because that might suit you better.” And it’s a question of balance, and having four soloists actually makes me subtly change how I might get from A to B, so it keeps my interpretation alive, although my basic ideas are much the same each time. But then certain things will alter, and I keep it fresh. It has to be spontaneous. By and large, the singers that I am bringing here are people I’ve struck up a relationship with, at some stage.
You seem to have different people with you.
We try to bring some changes, and I try to hear, when I am over here, as many American singers as I can. The thing here in the States is that you have some wonderful, wonderful singers, but you don’t have enough rock music happening to actually get people to change their ideas.
I don’t hear your singers following some particular style of early music at all. They’re more plummy English oratorio singers.
They are, but ones who respond to the text and the style. They’re aware. I think that’s the wonderful thing. You get someone like Matthew Brook, who is doing Christus in the St. John Passion, and then he’s doing Creation—he’s text-led, but he was in the Sixteen for the past 10 years. Christopher Purves, who has come many times. I saw Chris as Saul in the amazing production in Glyndebourne, which is coming out on DVD later this year—I really encourage you to buy it, it’s a most frightening production, an incredible production. Not a note cut—it is absolutely incredible, phenomenal cast and….
I’ll have to ask you a devil’s advocate question on Messiah in Symphony Hall: If you didn’t care about economic issues, would you like to have those forces in a smaller hall to increase the volume of sound?
Yeah, I think so. You are blessed in Boston for having so many fantastic halls—Jordan, Sanders…, and gosh, if we did all our concerts there, we would sort of fit it like a glove. Yet the Sixteen has done Messiah in the Barbican in London, in the Musikverein in Vienna, and massive halls, Sydney Opera House, big hall in Tokyo; it’s not a problem. So I think for a Boston audience, because of the predominance of concerts people are going to hear, if the audience is going to hear the BSO, they’re hearing a full stage, they’re hearing modern instruments. It might be difficult for quite a few of them for them to adjust their ear to us.
I think the ear automatically turns up the volume sometimes, and becomes habituated to a lower level. I had suggested in one of my reviews that following the Beecham style three or four of the biggest choruses could have double the personnel and maybe even the Symphony Hall organ played down a half-tone for those choruses. Where would that be if you brought it down half a tone … 437?
It would be hard.
You could tune to it
You couldn’t, really, because by and large we use a Valloti temperament, so we have your 3rds and 5ths going into an awful lot of problems. Actually we’re using Young in Saul, which helps the pluckers, particularly in three-flat, four-flat keys—there’s quite a lot in E-flat. It helps that we’re keeping our thirds and our fifths slightly lower. [But] it would be a problem. Even with a chamber organ, and there are certain things — you’ll find that Ian Watson will leave out the third sometimes — you’ll have to be leaving out too many. I’m a bit of a purist on that; I wouldn’t use the big organ on those things.
What about a bigger chorus for a few of the numbers?
Interestingly enough, when I came here, the chorus was larger, but actually didn’t make any more sound. When the Sixteen (you know there’s always 18) do Messiah, we never had a problem, and it doesn’t matter where we are. I’ve thought the H+H chorus reached a real height with Creation last season, and they’re really getting what I want in Messiah through repetition each year.
It is the finest professional chorus in the city, no question about it.
They’re great, and you know part of it is we’re building this up. It’s amazing how many really good singers there are in Boston, but inviting them into our chorus, we are also building their careers, a lot of these singers, like of Margot Rood, and Sonja and Stefan, Emily Marvosh, can come out and sing front of stage at Symphony Hall. That’s quite brilliant and they deserve it. So I see my role as one here nurturing new talent. For them to be doing a stepout aria or a full role, as Sonia and Emily did for the John Passion, they did really well, because it’s so much better for them than to be doing a Messiah in Nether Wallop.
What about having a larger portative made? I’ve seen pictures of the organ Handel used at first Covent Garden.
John Eliot Gardiner had an organ made by Robin Jennings, who’s the chap who’s made this little carillon that we use for Saul … and that was a big beast. The thing with them comes back to practicality. All these instruments, be they chamber organs or harpsichords, have to be used; they can’t just be brought up every three months. That’s where these Klopp chamber organs are absolutely brilliant, because they are incredibly reliable. They still have to be played a lot and you know we’re finding that this instrument is improving with age. We’ve got tuners who know historic temperaments.
But there is a major organ part in Saul, is there not?
There are the organ concertos …. I’m not going to have it front of stage and hopefully it will carry well enough in the back. Yes, of course, I would like something a bit bigger but we haven’t got it.
We’re also going to hear a carillon that is something like a glockenspiel.
Yeah, very similar.
Like in the last week’s Magic Flute.
The one and the same; I couldn’t believe my luck. Robin Jennings made this little carillon for John Elliot for the Magic Flute. Our harpsichord tuner has just replaced all the bars with 415 ones. It’s a simple thing. You can see it there; it’s really small. We couldn’t believe our luck. Justin Blackwell is going to play it. It is absolutely brilliant. You gotta really hammer it. But isn’t it fantastic? When Handel was writing Saul, Jennens would go visit him, and said, “God, Handel’s head is full of maggots; he’s got this instrument he’s having built! He’s got a carillon!” It evokes the beginnings of Saul’s rage. (singing) “Saul, you’ve slain thousands … But David, you’ve slain ten thousands,” and there’s a repetition there. And he gets more and more irate, and it’s just wonderful to wind him up.
When I did Jephtha, I created this tableau from a painting. The difficulty with oratorio is that, of course you’re lucky here because everybody’s got the text in the program so you can sort of follow along, you can follow the libretto. But you sort of want them to be following everything that’s happening on stage. It would be nice to semi-stage in some way but we haven’t got the time to do it.
Use blocking ?
I’ve got four soloists with two soloist platforms on opposite sides, so at least the audience can relate to a characters who won’t be in the same place. Some of the best arguments on stage are done this way, with the people as far away as possible, stage right, stage left…and it’s just simple things like that.
Many of us close our eyes.
Yes, it’s makes it easier doesn’t it.
Handel makes it easier in this case to imagine the stage in your mind. BTW, Does Mick Jagger respect your work?
I don’t know! I don’t know! I’ve met Roger Daltrey of the Who. I was really chapped when we did a concert in Melbourne at the beginning of last year; Roger had apparently tried to find me after the concert. He sent me a note and said,“I’ve twice been reduced to tears when at a concert. The first time was when you came to Australia 5 years ago and the second was this concert.”
You know Ken Russell’s Tommy movie?
Oh yes, very well. But you know, these people were hell raisers in their days and now of course they’re pillars of society. Mick Jagger goes to cricket.
Something very interesting with Tommy. When Pete Townsend wrote it he had an interview on radio, it was actually on BBC 3 the classical program. And they were talking about his influences on it. What’s amazing about so many of these pop stars is that is the variety of music that they’ve listened to but they don’t really know what they’ve listened to he says, “I got the inspiration for Tommy by hearing Purcell’s Dido.” And what the reasons were, all these little scenes, not the story but the little scenes, when you think of Dido you know in an hour you’ve got these little scenes.
Ken Russell was really in accord with the music.
Absolutely! And he remembers, Pete Townsend, because he came from the same county I was born in, and he went into a classical record shop, and he was about 18 when he went to this classical record shop and he went to buy it and he said, “I heard this thing”, and he sang a bit of it, and he said, “I think it’s by Beethoven, something like that and the guy behind the desk said, “No, it’s by Purcell.” And Pete Townsend thought well, “fuck you” and he said I wanted to buy it but I’m not going to buy it because this bloke’s so snooty to me, this kid in his leathers and his long hair. But, he did and he said and also the idea, clashes in music and he was talking about suspensions you know there are suspensions in Purcell. And on the by and by, he uses clashes in his own pop music you know.
But only in a pop way, totally simplistic and he got the idea from that. And I heard, this only a few months ago, in an incredible documentary with Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin about Stairway to Heaven saying, “The whole inspiration for me was to make it like a Bach bourrée.” He didn’t know what a Bach bourée was but then you sort of hear it and you think, well, yeah…
So you and Pete come by your rock childhood honestly?
We do! I drive my wife out of the kitchen. You know, I like cooking so the kitchen’s my area. Say if it’s a Sunday morning and I stick on Led Zeppelin. I stick on everything on a Sunday morning, it’s my time. But I remember an interview with Eric Clapton and asking what do you listen to after a concert, after a gig and he said, “I listen to Wagner.” And they say what do I listen to after I concert and I listen to after a gig and I say Led Zeppelin. Part of the reason I listen to Led Zeppelin, you know in the car is because I want to keep awake on the way back. (laughter) But I mean there’s certain areas of music I’ve had great difficult with sort of romantic opera. I have big difficulty with Wagner. Maybe one day I’ll get into it. Just as listening to Bruckner and the only reason I did I was doing a television program on Brahms and Bruckner on vocal stuff and I found it fascinating.
No and I found Bruckner’s Catholicism fascinating and so I bought Barenboim’s set of Bruckner Symphonies. I’m beginning to to absorb them one by one; I’ve listened to two and it’s taken me a year.
Last words on Saul, on the singers and the production?
Saul is the first full scale oratorio he wrote it’s the biggest orchestrally alongside Israel in Egypt. It’s massive—just gargantuan. I love the orchestration, it’s just fantastic. The way he uses three trombones. The big thing people will find slightly different is that we have a harp solo. The harp is also part of the continuo section. I’m a firm believer that the harp wasn’t just brought it just to play some little bit. Just to play that little aria in Esther, just to play the harp concerto in Alexander’s Feast. We know there were harps around in England and there were one of two good ones who played in the continuo section.
Certainly is more dynamically able to shape than harpsichord.
Oh YES. And of course again, we don’t know what Handel did in his day. Today we take many, many liberties with this. I make use of it, the harpsichord, the theorbo, the harp and the cello occasionally as continuo instruments in the recits so there are a variety of colors just to enhance, that’s my semi-staging in a way, that’s enhancing the action and the libretto
You’re taking liberties!?
Oh, I always take liberties. I take the word authentic with a few pinches of salt. The main thing for me is, it’s essential that you work from a good edition and I’ve had the benefit of a lifetime of works from Anthony Hicks who suddenly died it must be four years ago the first time I did the first time I did Saul and he did much research.
Doesn’t anyone talk about Winton Dean or his work anymore?
Oh God yes! He’s my bible. When I do any Handel oratorio for the first time or any Handel opera for that matter, I read his chapters from those beautiful tomes.
He was a great example of that British dilettante who knows more than the experts.
Oh gosh yes, and so was Anthony Hicks. He was basically an IT person who just had a love of music. I find those people are so refreshing because all they want is for the music to be performed and …
They’re not interested in academic cant.
Which I can’t stand!
So what are you going to watch after the show?
After the show!? (laughter) I’m going to have a last meal…and I’m enmeshed in the latest series of House of Cards!
It’s not as good as the British version though really. Ian Richardson was amazing.
I think Kevin Spacey is just amazing. He reminds me of an aria in which Saul is being ever so gracious, and I don’t believe a word of it. Real Kevin Spacey, one on one with the camera.