Christopher Hogwood

(Originally published in Boston Magazine, December 1996)

By 10 AM on Sunday morning, the gale force winds that had kept supermodels and movie stars from attending the Herb Ritts opening at the Museum of Fine Arts the night before had turned to driving rain. Emmanuel Church was still almost empty; only a handful of the faithful gathered, shivering, in the 19th century Gothic church on Newbury Street. But the church chorus was beaming as they marched towards the altar, singing.

The traditional Episcopal mass proceeded with prayers, parish news, a sermon about the AIDS quilt, communion, and requests for donations. Then the chorus rose up to sing a Bach cantata, and the musicians of Emmanuel Music carried their chairs and set up their instruments — bass, viola, flute — next to the small chamber organ on the altar.

Standing among them, leading their song, was Christopher Hogwood — international recording star for L’Oiseau-Lyre, founding director of London’s Academy of Ancient Music, Commander of the British Empire (the same rank as James Bond), and for the last ten years artistic director of Boston’s venerable Handel & Haydn Society. Two days earlier, he had bowed to a standing ovation in a packed Symphony Hall, received a medal from H &H, and heard the Governor proclaim October 18, 1996 Christopher Hogwood Day. But on that rainy Sunday morning, he seemed perfectly content to make music in a damp and dusty church, without remuneration or applause.

Since Hogwood came to Handel & Haydn ten years ago, the Society has been transformed from a small, privately funded orchestra with an illustrious history and a shaky future into a world-renowned early music group with an international reputation. H&H has devoted supporters and a dedicated staff, but Christopher Hogwood’s presence has brought it national attention and new life.

He came to H&H on condition that they play what he likes to call “historically informed performances” — whose initials, he hastens to inform you, spell “hip”. His preference for original instruments seems to be a matter of personal taste, a liking for the look and sound of the harpsichord, and a curiosity about what the music sounded like when it was written. “You have a stronger sense of the sound of the music as what the composer had in his mental ear,” he says. “It’s a more pure sound.” When pressed to describe the essence of the ‘historically informed performance’, he says, “It’s like trying to describe the scent of a rose.

Hogwood, who is English and was educated at Cambridge, England, is fascinated with history. He loves to collect “antique cookery books” and give garden parties at his house in England, complete with music, food, flowers, and even clothes of the period. (In addition to his house and garden in Cambridge, he has “flats” in Boston, London, and Sydney, Australia, where he conducts opera in the summer.) “He has tremendous respect for history,” says his personal assistant Heather Jarman. “He likes to compare doing early music to doing early recipes. They don’t say ‘a quarter teaspoon of sage.’ They make a list of herbs and you’ve got to decide what you want it to be. Christopher reads lots and lots of music, and lots and lots of recipes.”

Rehearsing a Mozart motet with the H&H chorus and orchestra in Symphony Hall, Hogwood hardly speaks. He hums, he sings, he makes precise, lyrical gestures with his hands, he taps his foot, he sways, he nods, he walks backwards and stands, still and alert, watching and listening from the back of the concert hall in an intense, almost Zen-like state on concentration. “One needs to know the tensions within,” he says. “Mozart works within a frame and pushes right up to the limits of the frame, and it’s the pressures on the frame, without breaking it, that’s exciting.” As he pulls the music out of the air, adjusting its scale and shape and sound, he seems to be playing the orchestra like a single musical instrument, mastering the music; you can see why they call him Maestro.

But it’s all very subtle — too subtle for some critics, who have interpreted Hogwood’s restrained style and English reserve as a lack of passion for the music he plays so well. Hogwood’s style is not the showmanship of Keith Lockhart or the gymnastics of Seiji Ozawa; he seems, above all, to be playing the music because he wants to hear it. “It’s difficult for Americans to understand that the emotion is there, but it doesn’t express itself in body language or tears,” says Jarman. “It’s not Hogwood that he wants to express. He wants the composer to speak through him.”

“Authentic doesn’t mean anything any longer,” says Hogwood. “One of the problems facing music, artistically speaking, is that it was written for a smaller, more refined arena, but financially people are finding it hard to survive even in large arenas. Only amateurs can indulge in music at that scale. My sister, in London, is a doctor and has string quartets at home and quite rightly points out that she is much more authentic than I am. We have to stretch the rules.”

“What seems to be the interesting arena now is recording, video, and television,” says Hogwood. “It carries with it something like intimacy, that doesn’t exist at the Hollywood Bowl. It’s like carrying postcards of great paintings. The people on rollerblades and walkmen, with the opera in their ears — it’s alternative and new, but it’s there as an access point. It’s clearly it’s not the original. On the other hand, it’s the only version you can carry around.”

Last Spring, H&H presented Orfeo ed Euridice, the opera by Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck (1714  –  1787), in collaboration with Mark Morris Dance Group, in Boston and New York; Hogwood won the Edinburgh Festival Critics Award for Music when the opera travelled to the Edinburgh International Festival in August. “Everyone thought Mark Morris was wild,” he says, “And suddenly they see a classical interpretation — standing back and not going over. There’s wildness and there’s restraint, and they have to bond together.”

Since Orfeo, Hogwood has stopped wearing the traditional “stuffed shirt” tails and white tie; he now conducts in a simple high-neck black silk shirt, which he says he bought because the designer label is Vivaldi. It suits him; it gives him the air of an artist — or a monk. The Maestro’s new clothes are a metaphor for his approach to music: for Hogwood, music is not a dusty, lifeless tradition, but  something authentic, full of meaning, and alive. Musicians esteem him, from the young diva Cecelia Bartoli, with whom he is recording Haydn’s Orfeo to the H& H chorus to rising star soprano Dominque Labelle.

“He’s a perfectionist, and he really loves music,” says Labelle. “He has done so much for the early music world. He has made a big, big difference. He loves what he does, and so you have fun.”

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

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