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August 5, 2012

The BSO Season Considered

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The response of the BMInt readership to Professor Mark DeVoto’s article on the upcoming BSO season last fall prompted a request that he share his thoughts on this year’s season. Individual tickets for this 132nd season will go on sale tomorrow.

Herein I’m pleased to offer my reflections on the music and soloists for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s forthcoming season of 86 performances in 28 programs. The prospectus testifies to management’s imaginative efforts to present a roster of seasoned masters and promising youngsters, a spectrum of 18 conductors, as the search proceeds for a full-time music director to succeed the outstanding but ailing James Levine. Some names are long familiar to BSO audiences; Christoph von Dohnányi, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, Charles Dutoit, and Conductor Emeritus Bernard Haitink are each booked for two-week stints, mostly with conventional programs. Ten of the conductors are men whom I’ve never heard live or in recording, and four of them are names entirely new to me. Some, like Stéphane Denève, Oliver Knussen, and Alan Gilbert, have appeared brilliantly with the BSO in recent years, and others are appearing in dual capacity, like Christian Zacharias, who will both play Mozart’s Piano Concerto K. 456 (one of Mozart’s best and at the same time least often played) and also conduct Haydn and Beethoven (the complete Prometheus ballet — a long, long time since we’ve heard that one), and Itzhak Perlman, making his Symphony Hall conducting debut on opening night in a Beethoven program; he will play the two Romances and conduct the Seventh Symphony.

Some excellent soloists have been lined up in addition to Perlman. Among the performers in violin concertos are Gil Shaham (in Britten), Arabella Steinbacher (in Mendelssohn), Baiba Skride (in Shostakovich No. 1), Renaud Capuçon (in Sibelius), and Nikolaj Znaider (in Brahms); and Joshua Bell will play the Serenade for violin, strings and percussion by Bernstein. [Ed: A Schulhoff piece with the Hawthorne Quartet joining the BSO is scheduled for the third, Tuesday night, performance of that program to replace the Bernstein with Joshua Bell.] This seldom-heard but deeply interesting work (I once conducted part of it in a workshop with Eugene Fodor) is supposed to be modeled on Plato’s Symposium, but I never understood why, unless it resulted from Lenny’s having too much Harvard. Add to this already impressive assemblage the name of Pinchas Zukerman, who will play Oliver Knussen’s Violin Concerto, conducted by the composer.

Piano concertos are well represented, too; we will have Daniil Trifonov in Tchaikovsky No. 1, (played far too often), Kirill Gerstein in Prokofiev No. 1, in the same key of D-flat Major, (played far too seldom), Jean-Yves Thibaudet in Saint-Saëns No. 5 (one of his weirdest and best — hooray!), Stephen Hough in Liszt No. 1 (Hough is one of my favorite pianists today, but he will play a work that ought to be retired for at least a couple of decades), Radu Lupu in Mozart K. 488 (I remember when he did K. 456 beautifully with the Orpheus in Boston about 15 years ago), Lang Lang in Rachmaninoff No. 2 and Nikolai Lugansky in Rachmaninoff No. 3. Garrick Ohlsson, whom I admire boundlessly, is down for Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody which  Hough played with the BSO two years ago.

My parenthetical remarks don’t always measure the depth of my dissatisfaction with the repertory list, which includes the usual high percentage of warhorses against which I have so often inveighed in these pages. I don’t think I could ever get tired of hearing Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony or Schubert’s Fifth or Ninth, or Dvořák’s Eighth, or Mozart’s “Jupiter”; all these are on the list for the coming year. But I don’t care if I don’t hear Mendelssohn’s and Brahms’s Violin Concertos again for at least another 10 years, nor the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 (we can argue about whether it really is in B-flat minor), or the two Rachmaninoffs, or Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. If we want Tchaikovsky, why not hear the Second Symphony or Rachmaninoff’s magnificent Symphonic Dances?

That said, there are some fine surprises in store for the coming year, reflecting bold and original ideas about programming. One really unusual find is a Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra by Erwin Schulhoff, who might have emerged as one of the most original and progressive composers in central Europe in the 1920s and 30s, had the Nazis not put an end to his career and eventually his life. (I have a dozen CDs of his works and all of them are interesting, but I don’t know this one.) Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, highly touted here at its Tanglewood performance last summer under Bramwell Tovey, is scheduled for a reprise concert performance at the end of September. A very good choice. And once again I regret that Levine didn’t program Berg’s Wozzeck during his BSO term, though Ozawa did it in 1987 (and brilliantly, too). I mention it here not only to endorse concert performances of opera but also because Berg and Gershwin were friends.

We will get two operatic gems in concert performance in October: Stravinsky’s Nightingale (1914) in Russian, and Ravel’s l’Enfant et les sortilèges (1925); it is total enchantment, even without its complicated staging, and many regard it as Ravel’s greatest work. (There was a good performance at the Boston Conservatory earlier this year, with a reduced orchestra, as I noted in these pages here.) We have had Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale with the BSO as recently as two years ago, under Maazel; this is the non-vocal symphonic poem extracted from Acts II and III of the opera. But the complete opera – composed in 1909, begins with a shameless imitation of Debussy’s Nuages (Stravinsky later admitted that Debussy would surely have said, “Young man, I do it better.”); and the difference between that first act, composed before The Firebird, and the rest of the opera, composed after The Rite of Spring, is wonderfully refreshing.

Two BSO commissions are listed: Kaija Saariaho’s Circle Map for orchestra with electronic sounds, an American premiere (the title immediately reminded me of Barber’s A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map, which also includes electronics), and Augusta Read Thomas’s Cello Concerto No. 3 with Lynn Harrell, a world premiere. Other notable recent items that will be heard are Fandangos (2000) by Roberto Sierra; In Seven Days for piano and orchestra by Thomas Adès, who will also conduct; James Macmillan’s Three Interludes from The Sacrifice (2006); and Henri Dutilleux’s Métaboles. (I still remember the BSO world premiere of his fascinating Symphony No. 2, “Le Double,” in 1959, in Symphony Hall and again at Tanglewood.) But there are no works by local composers.

There are some older modern works that are not yet in the warhorse category but are welcome additions to the year’s repertory: Roussel’s Bacchus et Ariane Suite No. 2  (a favorite of Charles Munch), Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes of Weber and Concert Music for strings and brass; Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements and complete Pulcinella ballet; Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony, a powerful work, underappreciated because it was suppressed for so long; Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony and Romeo and Juliet Suite; and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. Well, yes, that one is certainly a warhorse, but an irresistible one — it was a Koussevitzky commission for the BSO in 1944, and I read somewhere that the fee was $500; does anyone doubt that the world got its money’s worth, while Bartók died in 1945 in abject poverty?. There also are works by Tippett and Britten and Martin and even Sibelius. Of Bruckner, there will only be the Fourth Symphony, which is all right by me, and Verdi’s Requiem, ditto. (I still love Toscanini’s recording in which you can hear the maestro shouting in the Tuba mirum.) And there is much more to hear, for it looks like a good year coming.

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, harmony. His most recent book is Schubert’s Great C Major: Biography of a Symphony (Pendragon Press). His website is here.

6 Comments

  1. No electronics in Barber’s “A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map.” It’s written for men’s chorus and timpani, though Barber later created optional parts for brass instruments. The timp part does call for some sliding pitches (using the pedal mechanism), but it’s all mechanical—nothing electronic involved.

    Comment by Stephen Owades — August 7, 2012 at 12:11 pm

  2. In all, I thought the season looked remarkably strong under the less-than-ideal circumstances.

    I am really looking forward to hearing Ades conduct In Seven Days. I heard him conduct the LA Phil in it about a year and a half ago and liked it a great deal. It made me go out and start listening to his other work, and I find it fascinating. I hope to get to the MET in November to see The Tempest.

    I will be interested to hear the MacMillan…the only piece of his I know is the St. John Passion that the BSO performed under Sir Colin Davis in 2010, and it did not inspire me to explore his music further. Perhaps that’s my bad.

    Comment by Michael Baenen — August 7, 2012 at 11:19 pm

  3. I had wanted to like the MacMillan St. John Passion, but only the chant-like portions for chorus were really appealing. I’m also looking forward to hearing something else by him and hoping I’ll like it.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — August 8, 2012 at 7:54 am

  4. The Sierra and Prokoviev concert looks great but I would not mind skipping the Tchaikovsky. Yawn.

    SIERRA – Fandangos for orchestra
    TCHAIKOVSKY – Piano Concerto No. 1
    PROKOFIEV – Symphony No. 5

    It is nice to see a Latin American composer, who lives in upstate NY, on a program.

    Comment by Aaron — August 10, 2012 at 6:38 pm

  5. Another reason to subscribe to the Boston Philharmonic and to the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

    Comment by Therry Neilsen-Steinhardt — August 12, 2012 at 12:10 pm

  6. James MacMillan’s opera The Sacrifice is a very strong work. You can hear more of him next season when Boston Lyric is doing his opera Clememcy.

    Comment by Will — August 23, 2012 at 8:56 pm

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