A master of many styles, Harry Bicket specializes in the music of the Baroque

When music of the Baroque is on the bill, the conductor often on the podium is Harry Bicket.

Universally acclaimed for his interpretation of Baroque- and Classical-era repertoire, Bicket has been artistic director of the English Concert, one of Europe’s finest period orchestras, since 2007. Plus, he maintains a busy schedule as a guest conductor of these works. So he will be right in his element when he leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a special program Nov. 10-12 with the Joffrey Ballet, featuring two new world-premiere choreographies, one of which is set to music from Rameau’s 1745 opera Platée.

Bicket, however, didn’t set out to be an early music specialist, even though he performed as a harpsichordist for 18th-century repertoire titans Trevor Pinnock, Christopher Hogwood and John Eliot Gardiner in the ’80s.

In 1990, Bicket took on his first conducting assignment — a production of Handel’s opera Ariodante at English National Opera. “It was, for me, an amazing opportunity because it wasn’t my music, really,” he said in a 2021 interview with the San Francisco Classical Voice. “I was a pianist at the Royal College of Music, and then I was an organist for four years at Westminster Abbey, doing church music, but also played Messiaen, Bach. And then when I went into international opera, I just wanted a change. I went to English National Opera, which was this extraordinary company that at the time, and was doing repertory that no one else was touching, in a way that no one else had ever dared to do. And all these young-lion directors, you know — the Alden brothers, Graham Vick, Jonathan Miller — and it was hugely exciting. So the ENO music director came to me and said, do you want to conduct this Ariodante?” 

Bicket modestly responded: ‘Well, no, I’m not really a conductor. What is this piece, Ariodante, anyway? I don’t really know anything about this music.” Then, thanks to his freelance harpsichord experience, he was informed that “you know more than most.”

Bicket thought to himself: “Well, if I just do one conducting gig in my life, that’s fine.” One opera gig led to another over the next five years. "I got work in Munich because they started doing a Handel opera every year, and then I got to go to the [Metropolitan Opera]. I went to work for [James] Levine for six months, in ’97, and then the Met’s [then general director] Joe Volpe said, “I think it’s time we did a proper, full-length Handel opera; I don’t want any cuts. Will you conduct it?”

And thus a Baroque star was born.

For his CSO run, works by Wagner and Ravel, which require different performance techniques, also will be on the program. “I really believe that modern orchestras can and should play [Baroque music] in a way that’s different from the way they play Wagner,” he said. “It doesn’t come naturally; the instruments don’t respond in the way that the 18th-century versions would have done. A lot of things I ask [musicians] to do on a Baroque violin with gut strings and a Baroque bow, those things just happen. And then you’re asking these people with these sort of pimped-up Ferrari-type violins and massive modern bows to suddenly drive around these little country lanes at high speed. And it’s hard.”