James Henshaw Q&A
We caught up with James Henshaw who is conducting Haydn's The Creation this autumn.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Image credits: Header illustration by Katie Ponder | The Creation concert autumn 2023, photography by ASH