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Handel and Haydn Society presents Composer Jonathan Woody world premiere

Orchestral suite celebrates music of former slave Charles Ignatius Sancho

Colette Greenstein
Colette Greenstein has been a contributing arts & entertainment writer for the Banner since 2009. VIEW BIO
Handel and Haydn Society presents Composer Jonathan Woody world premiere
Jonathan Woody PHOTO: Keith Race Design & Photo

Acclaimed composer Jonathan Woody firmly believes in the universality of music, and that it doesn’t belong to anyone person, race or culture.

The bass-baritone and Maryland native grew up singing in church, primarily gospel music, and influenced by artists like Kirk Franklin and Yolanda Adams. Occasionally they would perform Handel’s Messiah. “That was the first piece that really inspired me and got me really excited about classical music,” says Woody, who spoke to the Banner recently by telephone from his Brooklyn residence.

After immersing himself in music, from joining the choir and the band and playing the flute in high school, Woody says, he was certain that he wanted to be a professional musician. He studied music in college, and as he dug deeper into classical music he was inspired by Kathleen Battle and Paul Robeson. Battle became one of his professional role models for the kind of music she sang and for her career, and Robeson was an inspiration because of his ability to take music and politics and blend those together to effect change. 

As a performer and soloist, Woody has made appearances in recent seasons with historically-informed orchestras such as Boston Early Music Festival, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, Bach Collegium San Diego, Portland Baroque Orchestra and New York Baroque Incorporated. He is regularly featured as a member of the Grammy Award-nominated Choir of Trinity Wall Street, where he has earned praise as “charismatic” and “riveting” from the New York Times for his solo work.

Woody’s latest composition is a commission from Handel and Haydn Society to create a work based on the musical compositions of Charles Ignatius Sancho, the first person of African descent to publish classical music.

Sancho, born in the Middle Passage on a slave ship crossing the Atlantic to the West Indies, was sold into slavery in the Spanish colony of New Grenada. Later he made it to England, where he spent his entire childhood in servitude. He ran away as an adult and went on to become a shopkeeper, abolitionist, writer, composer and the first Black man to vote in a British general election.

Woody had heard of Sancho but didn’t know much about him. His friend, Reginald Mobley, who was named as Handel and Haydn Society’s first-ever programming consultant last year, suggested that he and H+H Artistic Director Harry Christophers look at the music of Sancho “as sort of a source in thinking about how to create a new work for the orchestra that reflected on the moment we were in in 2020,” says Woody, “with the Movement for Black Lives and the reckoning across the country of the history of racial injustice in a lot of these legacy institutions, including classical music.”

He continues, “And we felt, as a way to move forward to finding solutions, that we could look to the past for some clear examples of what had come before. And that’s how we found Sancho. He was one of the first people of color to be recorded in European history as composing music.”

Through his research, Woody discovered that Sancho’s pieces were similar to songs, in that they were short and had simple and catchy melodies. He believes that a lot of them were used as music for dances. His challenge as a composer was to turn those smaller bits of music into a stylistic form that an orchestra like Handel and Haydn could play. His “Suite for String Orchestra,” based on dance forms from the baroque and classical periods, is made up of five movements, each with a melody inspired by smaller works by Sancho.

Woody wanted to honor Sancho by bringing “a sensibility of joy and exuberance” to the music. When asked about translating Sancho’s story for a contemporary audience or a novice, Woody says, “Even if you really don’t know a lot about classical music, you’re struck by how lively the musicians are when they’re playing. They’re sort of engaged with each other, and you can tell they’re having this wonderful time making music.”

Handel and Haydn Society presents the Jonathan Woody world premiere on April 20 at 3 p.m. Performed by members of the H+H Orchestra, the premiere will stream for free to the general public (with a suggested donation of $10.00) and will be available for one month.