in: News & Features

March 7, 2014

BSO Music Director #15 Discloses Plans

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Fulfilling his annual role as BSO seer, Mark DeVoto weighs in once more with remarks on the forthcoming Boston Symphony season, concluding that there are exciting prospects as well as a generous measure of the predictable.

When I wrote my BSO season overview last year, Andris Nelsons had not yet been hired; I’m delighted that our new Music Director-designate will be conducting 10 programs. Among the visiting conductors are a lot of old friends: Charles Dutoit, Christoph von Dohnányi, Bernard Haitink, and Rafael Frühbeck will return for two programs each, Marcelo Lehninger, Stéphane Denève, and Christian Zacharias for one each. Several of the scheduled conductors are unknown to me; I’m particularly eager to hear Juanjo Mena, who will conduct Schubert’s “Great” C major in October. (It is the third time in six years this symphony has been scheduled, but I myself can’t get enough of it; for the curious, I mention my book, Schubert’s Great C Major: Biography of a Symphony, Pendragon Press, 2012.)

Among the beloved composers, Wagner gets half a program, on September 27, and after his bicentennial, last year, that ought to be enough. He shares it with Mascagni, Catalani, Puccini, and The Pines of Rome, unusual bedfellows to say the least. Tchaikovsky appears only twice (Pathétique, Hamlet); Beethoven three times (Symphonies 5 and 8 and the Violin Concerto); Haydn with Symphonies 82 (the Bear) and 90. We had a generous assortment of Ravel this year; there won’t be as much next year, but it will include the G major Concerto and a real rarity, the delicious Ma mère l’oye complete in the ballet version of 1911. Debussy is listed for only the Images, but to hear all three of these, Ibéria plus Gigues and Rondes de printemps, is also a rare opportunity. Sibelius is represented by his Violin Concerto and the Second Symphony—the latter is another work on my lengthening list of superannuated warhorses deserving to be given a long rest. Mahler appears only once, but with a big one: the Sixth Symphony, in March. (The Boston Symphony back in 1966 made what was I think only the second recording ever of this great work, in a stunning performance conducted by Erich Leinsdorf.)

Richard Strauss is represented by Don Quixote, Ein Heldenleben, the prelude to Capriccio and the Burleske, with Emanuel Ax. These last two items are delightful and seldom heard; the other two are played far too often. Prokofiev is getting a good showing: both violin concertos, and the Symphony-Concerto that he wrote for Rostropovich.

Other composers are getting a lot of exposure. Of Brahms we will have Piano Concerto 1, the Violin Concerto, the Symphony 1, the Haydn Variations, and the German Requiem. Mozart gets even more space: five symphonies (K35, 36, 39, 40, and 41), the Sinfonia concertante for winds K297b, and five piano concertos (K449, 453, 488, 491, and 595)—a lot, but Mozart at his best.

And for other Schubert, the Unfinished and what is billed as Incidental music from Rosamunde are planned. I would be happy to hear the entire hour-long Rosamunde music, including the great Act I entr’acte (in B minor, perhaps meant to match up tonally as a quasi-completion of the Unfinished, as Stokowski liked to do) and the usual ballet music, but I don’t imagine that the Spirits’ chorus, the Hunters’ chorus, or the really lovely Shepherds’ chorus will be on the menu. Maybe they’ll include the song “Der Vollmond strahlt,” which requires only a solo singer. Critical reports from the Rosamunde premiere, in 1823, suggest that the play by Helmine von Chézy was so preposterously bad that nobody even then regretted it was lost; on the other hand, Schubert’s score was cheered, and it is certainly some of his best music.

Besides Prokofiev we will hear novaya kuchka of Russians. Stravinsky heads the list with the Rite of Spring, the complete Firebird (we last heard it with Salonen, last year), the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, and the Pulcinella Suite. Not a bad assortment, and we have heard a lot of his other music in recent years; but when are we going to hear some of the really lesser-known Stravinsky, such as Mavra, Zvyezdoliki, the Violin Concerto, the Ode (which was premiered by Koussevitzky), the much-maligned Scènes de ballet, or indeed any of his music written after The Rake’s Progress (i.e., during the last 20 years of his life)? We’ll get one Shostakovich (Tenth Symphony), Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade (haven’t heard it live in years, and although it’s corny it’s a real rouser), and four short pieces by Anatol Liadov, which I think of as a daring and very welcome choice. (Liadov was Rimsky-Korsakov’s protégé who received the original commission from Diaghilev for the Firebird. Stravinsky later wrote, “He was a short-winded, pianissimo composer and he never could have written a long and noisy ballet like the Firebird. He was more relieved than offended, I suspect, when I accepted the commission.” Short-winded he was, but Liadov was an expert craftsman and his short pieces are precise and packed with vitamins.)

One surprise is The Bells by Sergei Rachmaninoff, on the poem by Poe. (The usual performances use a Russian translation by the Symbolist poet Konstantin Bal’mont: “О, как звонко, звонко, звонко, (Oh kak zvonko, zvonko, zvonko,…) or maybe “O how clearly, clearly, clearly…) I wonder what a performance using the translation by Vladimir Nabokov would be like?

I suppose I look forward to hearing the Offertorium by the heralded Sofia Gubaidulina, but I have yet to hear one minute of her music that I found remotely interesting.

There are some genuine 20th-century surprises on next season’s list, of which the biggest has to be Szymanowski’s three-act opera King Roger, scheduled for two performances in March and sung in Polish. Dating from 1926, it is certain to confirm more understanding for this underplayed, complex, mystic, who stand as the greatest Polish composer after Chopin. I’m also anticipating with pleasure the Fourth Symphony, Inextinguishable, of Nielsen. It’s good to have another link in the revival of this protean Dane, who was quite popular 60 years ago and then faded.

There will be a good cross-section of new works. John Harbison’s “choral scherzo” called Koussevitzky said: will be heard in November, on the same program with an as yet undetermined work by Eriks Ešenvalds, a Latvian countryman of Nelsons. Astrolatry, by the Israeli composer Avner Dorman, will share a program with Prokofiev and Schumann’s Spring Symphony in January; a trumpet concerto called Dramatis Personae by Australian composer Brett Dean is on the November schedule; a piece for piano and orchestra (the title too long to give here) by Sir Harrison Birtwistle will be given heard in February, and in April we will hear Thomas Adès’s Three Studies from Couperin. Besides Harbison, two other local composers will be recognized: Gunther Schuller (Dreamscape, April) and Michael Gandolfi (a new work for organ and orchestra, a premiere, March).

I haven’t mentioned all of the works to be played, nor even more than a few of the performers. Some of the best soloists in the world will appear: Emanuel Ax, Yo-yo Ma, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Christian Tetzlaff, Richard Goode, Maria João Pires, Jean-Yves Thibaudet. A dozen others whom I’ve never heard are listed, whom I eagerly await to hear. It’s pointless to say more than this now about players and singers, because in Boston it’s a given that we can expect first-rate.

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.

2 Comments

  1. I’m not sure that “it’s pointless to say more now about…singers” since I don’t think you said anything about singers. It’s certainly worth noting that the September 27th program (the “unusual bedfellows” one) features Jonas Kaufmann, surely the greatest operatic tenor of the 21st century, though I’m sorry that most of the program (aside from the “Lohengrin” excerpt) is from the verismo repertoire.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — March 7, 2014 at 12:36 am

  2. Mark DeVoto’s contributions are always interesting; I always learn from him and usually agree with him. This time, however, I disagree vociferously on one subject. The music of Sofia Gubaidulina is never uninteresting; it is full of wild, often brilliant invention, apparently chaotic, strident, dramatic, but always aspiring to, and sometimes achieving, a broad coherence; and from time to time mysteriously, almost perversely beautiful. The violin concerto Offertorium is one of her best works, at least among those I have heard; there’s an excellent recording of it on which the soloist is the dedicatee, Gidon Kremer, and the orchestra is one of the best: the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Charles Dutoit. I can’t wait to hear them play it under Andris Nelsons with Baiba Skride as soloist.

    I admit that if I had known before listening to Gubaidulina’s music of her adherence to a compositional method that involves a kind of numerical mysticism involving the Fibonnaci sequence, I would have been filled with dread. Fortunately I listened first, and now I can only say to her, as Shostakovich did in 1963 (in a somewhat different context), “I want you to continue on your mistaken path.”

    There’s a wonderful paragraph in Charles Rosen’s essay The Irrelevance of Serious Music that begins, “It is perhaps not healthy or reasonable to develop a taste for absolutely everything.” He goes on to make an example of his own distaste for the music of Messaien, but makes it clear that that is a matter of taste and not judgement, tempered by his respect for others (his example is Peter Serkin) who admire that music very much. I do not begrudge Mr. DeVoto his distaste for Gubaidulina, but hope others do not infer from it that her music is not worth listening to.

    Comment by SamW — March 7, 2014 at 9:26 pm

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