Rhian Morgan

On angels’ wings

4:45, 9th March 2017

Arcangelo’s artistic director Jonathan Cohen is enjoying the vivacious response to his ensemble’s position as the first of its kind in residence at Wigmore Hall. Rhian Morgan met him for coffee to chat about his accomplishments and what’s next in store

Sitting in the Starbucks on the Kings Road, I twiddle my thumbs and gaze out of the window before accusing three chaps of being Jonathan Cohen in advance of the arrival of the man himself. I suppose this is what a Tinder date must feel like but few anxious would-be romantics are presented with the likes of Cohen, conductor, cellist and keyboardist, who, at the age of 39 is described as ‘one of Britain’s finest young musicians’.


As artistic director of Arcangelo, Cohen is currently relishing the enthusiastic reaction to their opening concert as the Wigmore Hall’s first Baroque Ensemble-in-Residence. It is a series which juxtaposes the well-known – Bach’s sixth Brandenburg Concerto in the group’s pre-Christmas concert, with its magnificent pairings of violas and violas da gamba – with rarely-heard related works. Two more concerts follow this year with Biber, Buxtehude, Schmelzer and Kühnel at a late night concert in May, and with Clérambault, Couperin and de Montéclair in July.


There have been more than a dozen well-received recordings from them too; Arcangelo has released a wide range of music, from Porpora and Handel to Gluck and Mozart, and, most recently, countertenor Iestyn Davies’s Bach Cantatas, including ‘Ich habe genug’.


One of Cohen’s greatest joys seems to be bringing friends together to play – both singers and instrumentalists, using historical and modern instruments. He was at Cambridge with the soprano Elin Manahan Thomas and with Iestyn Davies, with whom he is touring in America with Philharmonia Baroque in early March.


The dazzling technical ability of performers of this calibre is a given but it is what one listener called the ‘passion for faithful interpretation that goes far beyond historical understanding’ that makes this group stand out. It has performed in top venues and festivals, including the Philharmonie in Berlin, the Vienna Musikverein, the Köln Philharmonie, Ghent Cathedral and the Carnegie Hall in New York.


‘With Arcangelo, I do have the dream base,’ says Cohen. ‘I am casting players as well as singers and yes, the standard is very high. But we are like-minded people and in this business, psychology is 50% of the job.’ False modesty or maybe simply working with musicians who really understand each other, Cohen sees himself as a facilitator. Winning over the musicians was mentioned when he was appointed music director of the Canadian Les Violons du Roy et La Chapelle de

Québec last Autumn, a position he takes up for the 2018/19 season, although he has already undertaken several concerts with them this year. ‘Jonathan Cohen’s arrival is the result of the exceptional rapport he established with the musicians of Les Violons du Roy,’ says Jean Houde, chair of the Roy board of directors – or as Le Devoir in Montreal puts it, ‘Quelle intelligence musicale!’


Jonathan Cohen, Conductor Photo: Marco Borggreve
Jonathan Cohen, Conductor
Photo: Marco Borggreve


After last year’s well-received Le nozze di Figaro at Glyndebourne, this season Cohen will be conducting Handel’s Semele at Garsington. Opera has opened his eyes to the fluidity of performances. ‘We did Figaro at Glyndebourne 17 times,’ he says. ‘It changed hugely as the season went on and that’s no bad thing as there is a danger in overpreparation before you actually get started on a piece.


‘With each performance came new challenges … opera is very in the moment … and I loved the spontaneous acting and singing, the fluid and fast reactions of the performers. As for conducting opera, there’s that exhilarating sense of being in a boat in the rapids and the need to just sometimes exert pressure, to stop holes leaking.’ It’s an arduous schedule and Cohen is all too familiar with the difficulties of life as a travelling musician. He quotes Simon Rattle, commenting, quite without complaint, that ‘people don’t appreciate what you give up when you devote your life to music,’ that you wave goodbye for six weeks, that you can’t be settled. He affirms that with switching between home and away, having a son of five in London keeps him firmly anchored.


He has worked extensively with Les Arts Florissants, as Associate Conductor, and it is to its founder William Christie, harpsichordist, conductor and musicologist, that Cohen offers much gratitude. ‘I’ve done so much opera with William,’ he says. ‘His outlook is very European, we’ve performed all over the place and he has been very trusting. For me it has been a highly beneficial apprenticeship.’ Cohen, who was a pupil at Manchester Grammar School, remembers early criticisms from a cross piano teacher, who marked him down as an all-rounder rather than as someone who would master a single skill. ‘I would play everything, pick up a score, and read all the clefs and generally devour whatever was around. At Cambridge, there was that life of bashing through an opera just because you could …’ But this background, a few decades down theroad, has proved hugely beneficial for a career as a conductor, coming to a specialism in the end, and understanding how an instrumentalist feels.



His time in symphony orchestras, as a cellist immediately after university, was instructive. ‘I was all for further study but my father said, “No, you get a job in the real world,” so I freelanced,’ he says, playing with many of the UK’s foremost orchestras and ensembles, both symphonic and historical. With this experience Cohen developed a crossover specialism in the field of early music and an interest in period instruments.


Working in an orchestra led him not only to want to play more than ‘just’ symphonic music but also to recognise and understand the hostility players sometimes feel towards conductors and this has coloured the way he works today. ‘Sometimes it’s more about look than substance,’ he muses. He appears self-analytical but not introspective. ‘Do I mind being judged?’ he asks. ‘I say I don’t care at all then I think I do really care what my colleagues think. But you can’t chase appreciation as the sole goal … you have to serve music the best you can, despite yourself.


‘I actually find the idea of a conductor strange. I’m just there to bring people together and to give momentum … what I do changes depending on what people need from me. My ideal goal is to eliminate myself entirely, and allow players to work with their own freedom and creativity.’


So what keeps Cohen awake at night? The rigours of international travel? Worries over ornamentation or work drying up? Normally, he is, he says, ‘rather like a caveman. I can sleep for hours and sleep is one of life’s best things.’


The reality of what does keep him counting sheep is rather more universal and far sweeter. ‘My son Joshua,’ he says. ‘He’s five and he is so enthusiastic and excited about music. I think about him and I just want him to have a happy life.’ And what does Cohen predict as his epitaph? ‘Father of Joshua and keen musician,’ he says simply and modestly. And with that, he disappears back onto the Kings Road.



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