This month the New York Philharmonic continues what is now a winter-season tradition: performing Handel's Messiah, December 15 _19, a work that remains a precious gem of the literature. This year's maestro, the British- born Jane Glover, will be making her Philharmonic debut leading that piece, which has been with her for almost all of her life.
"I heard my first Messiah when I was nine," she recalls. "I couldn't articulate it at the time, but somehow it was the work that made me realize I would be a musi- cian." She has since conducted the orato- rio often, and throughout the world. "With the privilege of the Philharmonic debut I'm approaching my 100th performance," she calculates. "I've done it with small chamber groups and everything in between to major symphony orchestras, and with choirs of up to 400. And no matter how many times you do it, it comes up fresh as paint every time; an absolutely marvel- ous work in which every section is a show- stopper : not a dud 16th note in it. Just pure gold, from start to finish. With that kind of piece, every time I start there is both the joy of recognition and familiarity and the revelation of new musical discoveries. When I've gone through a season without it, I've felt as though there were something missing."
Glover speaks of how exciting it will be for her to work with the vocal soloists in the Philharmonic performances : singers whom she admires but with whom she has never before performed Messiah. "I enjoy Tim Mead's work, so I was happy he was already in place. I recommended the other three: Heidi Stober, with whom I worked recently at The Met in Magic Flute; Roderick Williams, with whom I have done lots of stuff; and Paul Appleby, whose Handel work I admire enormously."
Jane Glover was born in Helmsley, Yorkshire, in 1949, to a family of amateur singers: her parents met singing in a choir and her younger brother sang in The Choir of St. John's College, Cambridge. Young Jane, however, was the only one who took formal piano lessons, then oboe, and loved choral singing throughout her school days.
But her musical education departed from that of most conductors. "I didn't attend any conservatory," she says. "I went to Oxford University and read music as an academic subject, earning my D.Phil. in 17th-century Venetian opera." Her studies in score reading and figured bass, rec- itative as an improvisation, and more served as a platform to conducting, but her doctorate of philosophy work also evolved into a book on Cavalli, scores of some Ve-netian operas which had not heretofore existed, and performances thereof.
In fact, she made her professional debut conducting her own edition of Cavalli's L'eritrea in 1975 at the Wexford festival, and then went on to Glyndebourne. "That was my turning point. To work for and among great people, whose standards are so high : watching conductors like Haitink and Rattle, and with the greatest singers and directors. Glyndebourne was really my second alma mater." She soon became chorus master, advanced to directing the touring company during the festival season and, soon, conducting in the festival as well. "It was a wonderful progression through the various levels, and I came out a much finer musician for it."
By the time Glover left Glyndebourne she had her own orchestra, the London Mozart Players, which she'd taken over in 1984. Almost immediately followed a mixture of prestigious operatic and symphonic engagements : at Covent Garden, Berlin Staatsoper, La Fenice in Venice, Huddersfield Choral Society, Cleveland Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony. She did not give up her academic interests and published the acclaimed Mozart's Women. But her third book, on Handel's London life and music, has been delayed : for reasons that are not difficult to understand: she is music director of Chicago's Music of the Baroque, a post she's held since 2002; artistic direc- tor of London's Royal Academy of Music; and a guest conductor all over the world.
To ask Glover for a wish list may seem superfluous : after all, she already is an opera and concert maestro; a celebrated author and broadcaster; the artistic director of a conservatory; a conductor on a vast discography. And, having achieved her first fame as an early music specialist, she now very happily conducts 20th- and 21st- century music, with her knowledge of early music informing her approach to the newer composers as part of a historical musical continuum.
But does she have a wish list? "I'm just incredibly lucky to have composers like Mozart and Handel and Britten coursing through my head, my heart, or my hands : or all three. In that sense, my life is rich and my musical palette has gotten very broad. But right now, I'm really excited to be working with the New York Philharmonic, especially in New York in Decem- ber. You do the holidays so well!"
Robin Tabachnik is a New York _based arts and culture journalist who writes frequently for Playbill, Town & Country, and IN New York magazine.