Ed. Note: Mark DeVoto has added even more of his thoughts on BSO repertoire. His suggested season continues below the break. Click “continued” and scroll down for the concerts eleven through fifteen.
To be the successful director of a major orchestra one has to earn and preserve respect — from the orchestra players first and foremost every day, but also from other musicians, from living composers, and of course from the Board of Trustees — and audiences. But in my opinion, audiences count least among this assembly, because the respect (and sometimes the disrespect) is usually there in the first place whether it is deserved or not. Conductors mostly don’t seem to see it this way. Too often, I think, conductors are of a mind that they must give the audiences what they think they want, every time; not often enough do conductors feel that it’s their job to serve the musical public as a whole, to educate as well as delight their audiences. James Levine is an outstanding educator in this regard; at the same time, he gives the audiences what they want to hear far more often than he gives them what they don’t want to hear.
The next conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra will get no sympathy from me if he/she insists on programming that is overloaded with warhorses. All of the BSO’s permanent conductors from the 1930s have served the warhorse repertory loyally, but especially Koussevitzky and Munch served the interests of contemporary orchestral composers, and especially local composers (Walter Piston, for example, had no less than eight of his works given their first performance by the BSO during the Koussevitzky-Munch years); the same was somewhat less true of Ozawa, who regularly introduced works to Boston were first heard elsewhere (I think of Messiaen’s Saint Francis of Assisi), but who often stuck to the shopworn in his programs. Leinsdorf and Steinberg were both relatively uninterested in unusual programming, with a small number of distinguished exceptions (Leinsdorf directed the first Boston performances of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, which they brilliantly recorded); warhorses were the rule with them.
What do I mean by warhorses? I mean orchestral works that everybody knows and loves, but that are performed more frequently than we need to hear them in order to learn them and love them. There are many warhorses that I will happily listen to many times over — any of the symphonies of Beethoven, for instance, or the last three Mozart, or the last two Dvorák, or Firebird or The Planets or Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra any of dozens of works that you or I or anyone else could easily name, but that doesn’t mean I want to hear them every day, and certainly not all of them every year. There are also plenty of warhorses that are works of lesser quality by great composers, but that are nevertheless very popular, and it is especially these that I want to propose be given a long rest on BSO programs — Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies and First Piano Concerto, for instance. Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony is one of the very best of all time, of course; how long has it been since we heard his First Symphony (“Winter Dreams”) or his Second Symphony, the “Little Russian”? You may madly adore the Brahms Violin Concerto; I’d rather hear one of his piano concertos any day. I’d far rather hear Copland’s Billy the Kid than his Rodeo. And I’ve sounded off before in these pages about Vaughan Williams’s Tallis and Lark and Fifth Symphony and other overplayed bores.
So, some of my own ideas about future Boston Symphony programming. (Directors and patrons of other orchestras around here, please take note; you’re welcome to as many of my ideas as you wish.) What I propose for the Boston Symphony is that every other weekly program for the season — or possibly even more often — include not more than one warhorse, and that the remainder of the program be made up of excellent but less well-known works by the best-known composers, or excellent works by less well-known composers.
Here are five sample programs of the type I’d like to see and hear. Many of these pieces are seldom heard anywhere today. I freely admit that I’ve listed a small number of venerable warhorses, but no real clunkers. If there is a preponderance of Romantic era, that’s OK; most music for full orchestra falls into that category. I’ve been examining the BSO’s database for numbers and dates of BSO performances since the orchestra’s founding, and my information given with these titles should be correct. (I have deliberately excluded any works by living composers, for the plain and simple reason that many that I might suggest are by friends of mine.)
I invite anybody to comment either on these suggested programs or on my observations above, and at another time I’ll suggest some more programs.
PROGRAM NO. 1
Haydn: Symphony no. 47 (never heard at the BSO)
Stravinsky: Fireworks (ten times, last heard 2003)
Stravinsky: Zvyezdoliki (five times, last in 1972)
Busoni: Piano Concerto (never)
PROGRAM NO. 2
Bach: Brandenburg Concerto no. 1 (twenty-two times, last in 1982)
Borodin: Symphony no. 2 (thirty-seven times, last in 1972)
Copland: Organ Symphony (six times, last in 1964)
PROGRAM NO. 3 (Schubert)
Rosamunde, entr’acte #1 (twenty times, last in 1937)
Rosamunde, entr’acte #2 (twice, both in 1889)
Overture to Des Teufels Lustschloss, D 84 (never)
Symphony no. 8 in C major, D 944 (“Great”) (236 times, last in 2009)
PROGRAM NO. 4
Schubert: Symphony no. 3 (thirty-seven times, last in 2002)
Wagner: Five Poems of Mathilde Wesendonk (ten times, last in 2004)
Dvorák: Polednice (“The Noon Witch”) (never)
Weber: Konzertstück for piano and orchestra (twenty-two times, last in 1978)
PROGRAM NO. 5 (French)
Debussy: Fantaisie for piano and orchestra (two times, both in 1920)
Debussy: Gigues (twelve times, last in 1992)
Debussy: Danses sacrée et profane (three times, last in 2009)
Chabrier: Overture to Gwendoline (twenty-five times, last in 1924)
PROGRAM NO. 6 (American)Griffes: The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan (14 x, last 1976)
MacDowell: Piano Concerto no. 2 (38 x, last 2004
Creston: Symphony no. 2 (27 x, 1945, 1953, 1956)
PROGRAM NO. 7
Beethoven: Overture to Ruins of Athens (4 x, last 1887)
(OR: Incidental Music to Ruins of Athens, 4 x, last 1992)
Bartók: Rumanian Folk Dances (10 x, last 1994)
Goldmark: Symphony, Rustic Wedding (37 x, last 1910)
PROGRAM NO. 8
Haydn: Symphony no. 63 in C major (“La Roxelane”) (never)
Chopin: Krakowiak for piano and orchestra (never)
Berwald: Sinfonie singulière (once, TMC Orchestra, 1965)
PROGRAM NO. 9
Schubert: Overture to Die Zwillingsbrüder, D 647 (never)
Schumann: Konzertstück for 4 horns and orchestra (5 x, last 1994)
Nielsen: Symphony no. 6 (“Sinfonia semplice”) (5 x, all 1965)
PROGRAM NO. 10
Duparc: Lénore (2 x, 1896)
Debussy: La plus que lente (once, 1998)
Franck: Les djinns (6 x, last 1951)
Massenet: Scènes alsaciennes (twice, both 1883)
Some will note here some titles already mentioned in the earlier Comments. I heard a first-rate MacDowell Second Concerto by the Boston Civic with Virginia Eskin a couple of years ago. I’m glad that Goldmark’s Rustic Wedding was mentioned even before I listed it here. It may be a crowd-pleaser, but it also has some subtle and very interesting structural aspects, especially its cyclic treatment when the post-Schubert cyclic-symphony era had already been in full swing for thirty years.
Griffes’s Pleasure Dome is one of the unquestionably great works of American Impressionism; it was premiered by the BSO under Monteux, and hats off to Seiji Ozawa for recording it. The Creston Second Symphony has been called “real trash” because of the populist appeal of its dancelike second movement, but I think it deserves a genuine re-evaluation. Creston today is almost entirely forgotten, but in the 1950s he was the second most-performed American composer of symphonic music (after Copland I think).
I have taken a lot of ribbing from friends for my enthusiasm for the Berwald Sinfonie singulière, but those who take the trouble to hear it are usually convinced of the value of this singular work from 1845 (his other symphonies are pretty good too). Berwald has his mannerisms, and his influence from Mendelssohn and perhaps Berlioz are apparent, but his technique and originality are undeniable; he is the most significant Scandinavian composer before Grieg and I would be happy to hear this work instead of a couple of Sibelius.
Duparc’s Lénore, a single-movement symphonic poem, is a Franco-Wagnerian gem, much more interesting than the sprawling four-movement symphony by Joachim Raff based on the same poem by Bürger. I have conducted Massenet’s Scènes alsaciennes and they are a delight in four movements, richly melodic (including a choral protestant which turns out to be Wachet auf), beautifully scored, with fine instrumental soli, and wrought in harmony of impeccable taste. Debussy praised his former teacher for his peculiarly French gift for writing music purely to give pleasure. Those who are turned off by Manon and Thaïs will find something different here.
Beethoven’s complete Ruins of Athens music could be substituted on my No. 1 program because its Chorus of Dervishes, which sounds more like Rimsky-Korsakov than Beethoven, is sensational; the men’s chorus would be used also with the Busoni and Stravinsky’s Zvyezdoliki (in whose Boston premiere in 1962 I played a minor role).
PROGRAM NO. 11
Debussy: Trois poèmes de François Villon (never)
Ravel: Deux mélodies hébraïques (never)
Stravinsky: Scherzo fantastique (12 x, last 2009)
Stravinsky: Agon (9 x, last 1965)
PROGRAM NO. 12
Debussy: Khamma, ballet (never)
Liszt: From the cradle to the grave (never)
Tchaikovsky: Symphony no. 2 in C minor (“Little Russian”) (43 x)
PROGRAM NO. 13
Stravinsky: Scherzo à la russe (7 x, last 1970)
Stravinsky: Symphony in three movements (35 x, last 2001)
Bartók: The Wooden Prince (never)
PROGRAM NO. 14
Martucci: Notturno (never)
Lambert: The Rio Grande (5 x, last 1934)
Holst: Egdon Heath (never)
Weiner: Hungarian Folkdance Suite (never)
PROGRAM NO. 15
Schumann: Overture to Genoveva (never)
Liszt: Totentanz (20 x, last 1987)
Mahler: Symphony no. 1 in D major (1893 version) (never)
There are a few sleepers in this collection. The BSO has taken justified pride in promoting French music, but it’s preposterous to neglect some of these important works by Debussy even if they are not of the same popularity as Faune or La mer. I remember that La boîte à joujoux got its BSO premiere only in the 1992, under Knussen. Not many have heard of Martucci, who was a pre-Puccini Italian Wagner, but his Notturno is a lovely short piece, and I wonder if anybody has heard of Léo Weiner, whose Hungarian Folkdance Suite is an orchestral spectacular that would be a hit on any program. The second version of Mahler’s First, for a Brahms-sized orchestra and including the “Blumine” movement, should be commended to any good orchestra; one of the most polished and sensitive performances I ever heard by any student orchestra was of this work in the summer of 1967 at Harvard, conducted by Joel Lazar. I was present in 1957 when Munch conducted the Boston premiere of Stravinsky’s Agon. It shared the program with Rameau’s Dardanus and Bruckner’s Seventh (!), which suffered because so much of the rehearsal had been given to the new work. Agon made the BSO programs only once more, in 1965.