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Excellent Choices and Surprises: BSO 2011-2012


Mark DeVoto ca. 2000

I write from Cambridge, that other Cambridge, in the U.K., where I’m visiting my just-married daughter and her husband. The program listing for the Boston Symphony for the 2011-2012 season has just arrived and I’ve looked it over carefully, remembering my chants of praise and rants of condemnation in these pages last month when I reviewed the BSO’s programming history in some detail. I am very pleased to see that the Boston Symphony, no doubt telepathically and accidentally, has adopted some of my suggestions. The coming season has some excellent though hardly unexpected choices, and some fine surprises in which all of us should take pleasure.

In these BMInt articles, I argued for more Haydn symphonies, especially those not previously heard at the BSO. In November we will get both ends of the Haydn spectrum: Nos. 1 and 100, and while No. 1 is unusual, No. 100, the “Military,” is certainly one of his or anybody’s best. If it seems a bit odd to pair these works with excerpts from Die Meistersinger, it’s good to hear something besides the overture from that incomparable opera. As for Mozart, he gets two evenings for Opening Night, in which Anne-Sophie Mutter will play and conduct five violin concertos, and in November his superb 25th Piano Concerto, K. 503, shares a well-balanced program with the Elliott Carter Flute Concerto, Berlioz’s Roman Carnival, and Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite; I call that inspired programming.

In my BMInt list of suggestions, I pointed out with some peevishness that the BSO has never performed Bartok’s Wooden Prince or Debussy’ Khamma. Score one for peevishness: both of these excellent ballet pieces will be heard next season, Wooden Prince in October (with Dvorak’s Cello Concerto) and Khamma in January (with Prokofiev’s Three Oranges and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and may we never get tired of either). Wooden Prince can be regarded as Bartok’s Firebird in ambience, proportion, and breadth of orchestral color – but we will also be getting the complete Firebird ballet in April. Debussy’s Khamma is a thrilling predecessor of Jeux, full of rich and mysterious harmony, and Charles Koechlin did an expert job of orchestrating it when Debussy was too ill to do it himself. This performance means that the BSO will at long last have performed every one of Debussy’s major orchestral works.

Among the old masters who I argued should be allowed to rest a little in BSO programs, there are some good proportions: of Brahms we will have two full evenings, including the German Requiem, and from Tchaikovsky we will get only one work, but it is surely his greatest, the Pathetique. I would be willing, myself, to forgo Sibelius’s Second Symphony, but I don’t know when the BSO last played it. It’s been a while since I last heard the BSO play Ein Heldenleben – I think it was with Michael Tilson Thomas about ten years ago – but I’d be willing to wait a little longer. I distinctly remember when Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony was on the menu, in 1959 or 1960 with Izler Solomon conducting, and that may well be the most recent performance; my opinion of this piece has risen ever higher over the years, even though it is too long and too thickly orchestrated.

John Harbison’s symphony cycle continues into its second year, with his Fourth at the end of November, Fifth a week later, and the new Sixth Symphony (a BSO commission) in January. The December program includes Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with Jonathan Biss, who superbly played the “Emperor” here just a few weeks ago. I look forward with pleasure to several new works: Turnage’s From the Wreckage, Dutilleux’s Tout un monde lointain, and Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto, as well as the Harbison.

Last, I applaud the decision to program Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite but plead earnestly that the Prelude and Danse du rouet from the 1911 ballet version should be included as well; one can discern in it how much Ravel was dazzled by Firebird when he heard it the year before. On that same program is Stravinsky’s Concerto for piano and winds, another item we don’t hear that often; it is Stravinsky’s reaching into Bach and jazz and Les noces-like primitivism all at the same time. And Shostakovich’s Fifth, an uneven but undeniably fine work.

I don’t need to comment on the rest of what looks like a fine and well-varied season shaping up next year. Many, indeed, most of the conductors will be entirely new to me, but that prospect doesn’t bother me at all. The Boston Symphony will, I’m sure, treat them very well.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, music harmony.



4 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. First of all, I’m very pleased that the Orchestra has engaged Till Fellner for a Mozart Piano Concerto. I enjoyed his two recent performances of Beethoven sonatas at the Boston Conservatory. With regard to the Rachmaninoff Symphony #2, it has ALWAYS been one of my guilty pleasures, every last note of it! Sometimes in conversations with people who are not classical music energumens, they occasionally say they would go to a concert if it consisted of pleasurable pieces, nothing too heavy or dissonant. For such persons, I will definitely recommend the concerts in October featuring the Britten “Sea Interludes”, Prokofiev Piano Concerto #3, and the Sibelius Second Symphony. I may even go myself.

    Comment by Laurence Glavin — May 6, 2011 at 2:35 pm

  2. Weber overtures (not one but two)! Hurrah!

    Comment by Joe Whipple — May 8, 2011 at 9:21 am

  3. Mark, one fairly recent series of performances of the Rachmaninoff Second Symphony occurred when Andre Previn conducted the premiere of his violin concerto, with, of course, Anne Sophie Mutter performing it. I was there, and during the intermission that followed the concerto, Anne Sophie happened to sit in the balcony right next to my wife and me — and stayed to listen RAPTUROUSLY to the Rachmaninoff. I thought, “How nice – a soloist who stays to hear the composer finish his concert. Little did I know they were “an item.”

    Comment by Bill Joplin — May 11, 2011 at 10:25 pm

  4. Previn’s performance of the Rach. 2nd was, perhaps, the most recent, but there was also a performance conducted by Leon Fleisher (at some point in the mid-to-late ’80’s). Prof. DeVoto was undoubtedly out of town on these occasions, or else distracted by one thing or another. On another note, some of the programs that are giving Prof. DeVoto cause to cheer about are clearly Levine programs, handed off to other conductors.

    Comment by Dan Farber — May 13, 2011 at 7:14 am

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