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Black composers featured in H+H season opener

Jonathan Woody commission expands on the themes of composer Charles Ignatius Sancho

Celina Colby
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Black composers featured in H+H season opener
Composer Jonathan Woody PHOTO: SAM SHORT

On Friday, Oct. 8 and Sunday, Oct. 10, the Handel and Haydn Society opens its 2021-22 season at Symphony Hall. The program highlights “Suite for String Orchestra,” a piece the organization commissioned composer Jonathan Woody to create based on the works of Black composer Charles Ignatius Sancho.

Portrait of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Thomas Gainsborough IMAGE: PUBLIC DOMAIN

Born into enslavement in the West Indies in 1729, Sancho was granted freedom in London and went on to build a successful professional career as a bookseller, writer and composer. A contemporary of composers Handel and Haydn, Sancho composed work of a similar genre, lively danceable strings pieces.

“He has the distinction of being one of the first published composers of African descent in the European world,” says Woody. Unfortunately, not much of Sancho’s work remains. “There isn’t anything that survives that was an orchestral scale work, something that a Handel and Haydn orchestra might play,” he says.

Woody was charged with expanding on Sancho’s existing works to create a larger, orchestra-friendly piece for Handel and Haydn musicians to play. The impetus for the commission came from the Handel and Haydn Society’s efforts to present a more diverse narrative of 17th- and 18th-century composers, including women, people of color and queer musicians. Reginald Mobley, programming consultant and countertenor with Handel and Haydn, recommended Sancho’s work as a jumping off point for Woody.

For Woody, it was a moving task to carry forward this composer’s legacy. “I have also experienced what it’s like as a Black person in a field that is not necessarily as diverse and well-represented as our country is,” he says. “I can feel a connection to him, a kinship.”

During the Oct. 8 and 10 concerts, “Suite for String Orchestra” will be performed alongside selections from Handel’s “Water Music” as well as Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” an all-strings piece of a similar style. The upbeat, engaging music is a joyful way to reenter the physical performing space. This will be the first time “Suite for String Orchestra” has been performed in person.

In addition to bringing the joy of experiencing live music again, Woody hopes the concert will engage listeners’ curiosity about Sancho and other composers of color.

“We are living through times where we don’t treat everybody in our society with the same amount of dignity and respect. I think history can really illuminate why that is and why that has come to be,” says Woody. “I hope that by giving the audience a musical outlet to experience this history, that that will be something really interesting for people.”