Patrons of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players received a valuable lagniappe in their concert programs through the publication of a complete BSCP repertory list during this, the ensemble’s 50th-anniversary season. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, the BSO has not yet put this up on its website (yeah, that website), though it would be a thoughtful accommodation if they did. Reading the list provides fascinating insight not only into the tastes of the musicians who have comprised the BSCP over the last half century, but also into the thought processes informing concert programming and the formation of musical taste in major American music centers. If you think this is going to turn into one of those “not enough new music” screeds, you’re wrong.
The BSCP have a rather distinguished record of performing contemporary music within the context of a generalist classical-music organization. Our critique here is more nuanced. What fascinates us is the surprisingly narrow range of what the BSCP consider—and therefore wants their public to consider—the best chamber music out there, considering that between their core personnel and the assisting artists on whom they can call they represent just about all the instrumental combinations for which great chamber music has been written. But it’s even more complicated than that, when you divide their repertory between “standard” and “modern” fare.
So what have the BSCP offered over the years? As one might expect there has been a fair amount of the “three B’s” of the Western canon. At the outset, we’ll say that we’re somewhat disadvantaged by the rep list’s failure to indicate when and how often a given work has been played, so we can’t give you weighted averages. Still: nine works by Bach (not really very many when you think about it), 29 by Beethoven, and 20 by Brahms. In addition, among the “core” composers of the Classical-Romantic tradition, listing roughly chronologically, there were six works by Handel, 17 by Joseph Haydn (only two by his brother Michael); 31 by Mozart, putting him at the head of the rankings; 28 by Schubert, of which only eleven were not songs, five by Mendelssohn, eleven by Schumann, ten by Dvořák, five by Debussy, and six by Ravel. Most of the other leading composers of this period are represented, but in very small numbers of pieces each. Tchaikovsky, for example, gets only the op. 48 serenade and the op. 50 trio—not even the Souvenirs de Florence was played; Boccherini is represented by only an oboe quintet; no Reger at all.
The mention of Debussy and Ravel begins the transition to 20th – and 21st -century composers, which is arguably the sweet spot for the BSCP, but the performance history here is remarkably skewed. Although by our (hand) count there are fully 130 composers within this category represented (give or take, with judgment calls for composers whose careers overlap periods), only a minority of them had more than one work performed (since you asked, 79 composers had only one work performed, leaving 51 with more), with fairly important ones like Ned Rorem, George Rochberg, Sofia Gubaidulina, Frank Bridge, Pierre Boulez and Arthur Berger among the slighted. The top three composers represented are Aaron Copland, with 18 distinct pieces (more than Haydn!), Charles Ives with 14 (all songs except for the Largo for clarinet trio) and Igor Stravinsky with eleven, which includes two versions of L’histoire du soldat. There were seven works apiece by Schoenberg and Hindemith, so that the top five composers were responsible for 57 pieces. Thus, out of 284 (ish) total pieces from this cohort, that leaves 227 pieces spread out over 125 composers, or less than two apiece. The remaining “favorites,” with more than three works performed, were Barber, Bartók, Carter, Harbison, Knussen, Martinů, Perle, Schuller and Wyner. There was nothing at all performed by John C. Adams (to say nothing of John L. Adams), Peter Maxwell Davies, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Alfred Schnittke, or any of the Spectralists.
So what’s the point of all this enumeration? Chiefly, it’s that the BSCP need to explore some things in more depth, and other things in greater breadth. In older music, they need to get away from the “top 40” to delve into the vast treasure-trove of chamber repertoire. Examples: they’ve only performed one work by C.P.E. Bach, and nothing at all by his brothers; they’ve slighted some composers and works of the early 19th century, such as Spohr (just the Nonet, but not the wonderful late trios or the piano quintet) and Onslow (zilch); none of the wonderful early and late chamber music of Strauss, and, as noted in our review of their most recent performance, they have largely neglected the pre- and early-modern American composers, of whom quite a few produced wonderful chamber music (you want names? alphabetically: Cadman, Carpenter, Chadwick, Converse, Foote, Hadley, Kelley, Parker). In the category of moderns, post-moderns, and whatever we’re calling more recent stuff, BSCP’s breadth is admirable, but more depth and more reflection on completed œuvres is required—what, not one work by Shostakovich other than his piano quintet? No Ernest Bloch or Leo Ornstein? So little William Bolcom? Et cetera.
The main takeaway ought to be that musicians and management should know more than they do about music history and repertoire, and should open up the vast cornucopia of chamber music for their own and their audiences’ pleasure. Music ensembles can keep people coming back, not through the vicious cycle of contracting choices and scattershot novelties, but through a virtuous cycle of piquing curiosity with expanded menus within familiar idioms and a somewhat more curatorial approach to composers of the newer ones.