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James Henshaw Q&A

We caught up with James Henshaw who is conducting Haydn's The Creation this autumn.

Haydn’s greatest choral work has captured generation after generation with its breathtaking retelling of the earth’s own origin story.

Expect invention, energy, even humour, as Haydn creates an entire world from the spectacular sounds of a chorus, orchestra and soloists.

We caught up with James Henshaw who is conducting Haydn’s The Creation this autumn.

Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your career so far?

I studied at Guildhall School of Music and Drama as a pianist and then quickly started working as a conductor. I was the Chorus Director at English National Opera between 2016 – 2020 and I’ve been freelance for the last three years working in the UK and across Europe.

You were Assistant Conductor for Glyndebourne’s Festival 2023 production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (also transferring to the autumn season). What was this experience like?

I’ve worked on over 50 productions so far and I’ve rarely felt as strong a bond as I did with the Don Giovanni team of singers, music staff, stage staff, orchestra, everyone. It was one of the best experiences of my life and to get to work with such wonderful people on a total masterpiece is as good an experience as you can get in opera. I’d happily do it all again.

What makes Glyndebourne different from other opera houses?

What I notice most is how every department is striving to be the best. At Glyndebourne, you feel that no one is trying to cut corners and everyone is working to continually challenge and push each other. That’s really exciting to be around.

For those unfamiliar with The Creation, could you tell us what the piece is about, and what the music sounds like?’

The piece tells the creation story of the universe, known to many of us from the Book of Genesis in the Bible. We hear, in both music and text, this story unfolds through the drama in Haydn’s music. There are amazing orchestral textures, like blazing trumpets and bright strings evoking the creation of light, undulating strings for the waves, or low contrabassoons for the lowest of the low: the Worm.

It is well known that Haydn was much inspired by Handel’s chorus writing when he heard a performance of Messiah in 1791 – what do you think were Haydn’s other musical inspirations for the piece?

Haydn was also very interested in other large-scale choral works by Handel. He heard many of them during his time in London. He was impressed by the intricate and large-scale chorus writing. I think the idea of storytelling but using grand classical form was very appealing to him.

What are the main challenges in conducting a work like Haydn’s The Creation?

The most important thing to remember throughout is that you’re telling a story, a profound story that has fascinated humans for as long as history can record: the creation of the universe. The performance needs to combine a sense of wonder and joy at the depictions of creation in the music while also captivating the audience through the thoughtful pacing of the drama.

Do you have a favourite moment in the work?

The overture, with its extraordinary depiction of the universe before creation, has to be a favourite, but also the fantastic way he sets: ‘and there was Light’ in fiery C major. It’s very dramatic and exciting, particularly the first time you hear it.

Is there a particular opera that you would love to conduct?

There are so many on my bucket list but I think I have a clear top three: Tristan und Isolde by Wagner, Tosca by Puccini and Peter Grimes by Britten. All are such powerful dramas and special pieces to me.

The Creation is on stage until 15 December

Image credits: Header illustration by Katie Ponder | The Creation concert autumn 2023, photography by ASH

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