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April 5, 2015

BSO Subscriptions Now on Offer


cartoucheVariety is the keyword for the next Boston Symphony Orchestra season [compete schedule here], though it appears heavy on Russians, beginning with Andris Nelsons’s continuing survey of Shostakovich, who is represented by Incidental Music to Hamlet, and three symphonies: 5, 8, and 9. The Fifth has always been the most popular, and first movement is really magnificent, but the last two movements are dramatically and musically weak. The Ninth is sardonic and almost frivolous, hardly a stirring paean of triumph at the end of World War II, and Shostakovich was severely criticized for that. But the Eighth Symphony, seldom played, is one of his best; brooding, defiant, and definitely a war symphony that has always unfairly been in the shadow of the “Leningrad” Seventh, much of which represents the composer at his worst. The Eighth is an important work, not to be missed.

Other Russians include Prokofiev (Alexander Nevsky, Romeo & Juliet), Rachmaninoff (Paganini Rhapsody and Symphonic Dances, two of his best late works), Giya Kancheli (Dixi for chorus and orchestra, an American premiere), and rather too much Tchaikovsky (but including the Serenade, Romeo and Juliet [another work on the Shakespeare list—the BSO offers a three-week Shakespeare tribute, marking the 500th anniversary of his death], and the rarely-heard but well-worth-hearing Symphony no. 1, called Winter Dreams). Stravinsky is a special case among these other Russians, but he gets one appearance, Petrushka in the original 1911 version for larger orchestra (Stravinsky thought his own 1947 revision “much more skillful,” and it paid him royalties, but I have always preferred the original).

Of the great Austrians and Germans, there’s a good helping of Haydn (Symphonies 26, 30, 92, and a Violin Concerto) and plenty of Beethoven (Symphonies 2, 3, and 7; Piano Concertos 1, 3, 4 and 5), but of Mozart only the Flute-Harp Concerto and the Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola; of Schubert only the Fifth Symphony; of Schumann only the “Rhenish” Symphony, the dullest of his four (why not, someday, do the Overture, Scherzo, and Finale for a change?), of Brahms only the Second Symphony; we get two Mahler symphonies (1 and 9) and one Bruckner (Third). Mendelssohn is represented by his complete Midsummer Night’s Dream music, a wonderful choice. There will be one piece by Liszt, the Totentanz—we can call him German for now without lèse-majesté.

Richard Strauss is represented by Macbeth (an early work; I don’t know it, but I like early Strauss generally) and, for a full evening, the complete Elektra in all its gruesome and ponderous explosiveness; it will be fascinating to see how the take-no-prisoners orchestra of 120+ players reacts to the  acoustics of Symphony Hall. (“Please play very, very softly,” Strauss is supposed to have said to the orchestra at a rehearsal, “because it’s all composed so loud.” I understand, too, that when Beecham conducted Elektra in London with the composer present, professional screamers were hired from the BBC to announce the murders of Klytämnestra and Aegisth, and Strauss agreed that these specialists would do nicely.) I’m certainly looking forward to this. Oh, yes, of the Second Viennese School, there’s one lonely example, Berg’s Violin Concerto in November, but it will be side by side with a performance of the “Es ist genug” chorale. (This program includes the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony, composed just two years later. Could Shostakovich have heard the Berg Violin Concerto, or seen the score at this time? Just possibly; we do know that he greatly respected Wozzeck.)

There are a few special programs. The season opener, with Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff, also includes Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with Yevgeny Kissin. This may remind some listeners that this world-famous but overplayed concerto received its world premiere not in Europe but in the Boston Music Hall, in 1875, where with Hans von Bülow as soloist, and B. J. Lang as conductor it met with instant success. Another October program features all-Dvořák for winds and for strings but not the full orchestra; but Dvořák’s Cello Concerto is the centerpiece in a program in January that is all-Czech, with Martinu’s Fantaisies symphoniques (Symphony no. 6), plus, regrettably, The Moldau, a work that I’ve often said should be retired from all concert programs for at least the next half-century.

There will be some fine French programming of a kind we have missed in recent years, beginning in January with a symphony by Gossec (how long since the BSO has played anything of his?), Debussy’s brilliant and difficult Jeux (which had to be cancelled some years ago) and La mer; some of Canteloube’s beloved Chants d’Auvergne; two pieces by Berlioz, including the Te Deum; and – I can hardly wait for this—Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole and l’Heure espagnole on the same Charles Dutoit program in March. Dutoit thus continues his fondness for opera as a concert experience in Symphony Hall, as he did this year with King Roger. On the same program is Manuel de Falla’s Noches en los jardines de España, which almost rates as a French work – one can consider it as one of the very few concertante works for a solo instrument with orchestra that can be called Impressionist.

Henri Dutilleux, who died two years ago, will be honored for his centenary with a number of performances, including Timbres, espace, mouvement between the two Berlioz pieces in February, and Métaboles in April, plus half a program of chamber music on January 10 that also includes Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro and rarely-heard but exquisite Mallarmé songs. Dutilleux would have appreciated the pairing. I hope that the BSO will revive Dutilleux’s outstanding Second Symphony, called “Le Double” because of its internal chamber-orchestra grouping, which I heard at its premiere in Symphony Hall in 1959 (my teacher, Luise Vosgerchian, played the harpsichord).

A number of newly-composed works will be performed—none of them by Boston composers. Boston Symphony commissions include Divisions by Sebastian Currier (October), Mannequin by Unsuk Chin (November), Aube by Jean-Frédéric Neuburger (November), let me tell you for soprano and orchestra by Hans Abrahamsen (February), and Sonnets, a concerto for English horn, by George Tsontakis (February). Other new works, not premieres, will include Blue Cathedral by Jennifer Higdon and a Violin Concerto by John Williams.

Andris Nelsons will conduct 14 of the scheduled programs; he now appears to be fully established with and acclimated to the Boston Symphony. But there is also an impressive list of guest conductors, including Dutoit, Bernard Haitink, Christoph von Dohnányi, Jiři Bělohlávek, François-Xavier Roth, Stéphane Denève, Vladimir Jurowski, Ken-David Masur, and Pinchas Zukerman, who will also play the violin.

This  doesn’t cover everything or everybody, but next year’s programming looks very vital, interesting, inclusive as well as exclusive. I look forward to an exciting orchestral year.

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.


  1. Mark DeVoto is certainly not shy about his opinions, for which I salute him even as I take strong umbrage at his dismissive comments about Shostakovich, which I think reflect a several-decades-old consensus based largely on misinformation and incomprehension. Nobody today, one hopes, would make the hash out of the finale of the Fifth Symphony that Bernstein did in 1959. Apart from the Second and Third, which are so seldom performed that it’s hard to reach a sound judgment, I don’t think Shostakovich wrote a bad symphony. However, differences of opinion are what make horse races.

    In answer to his query, a quick search of the BSO HENRY database reveals that the orchestra and chamber players have never performed a single work by François-Joseph Gossec, who was born two years after Haydn and died fourteen months after Beethoven.

    Comment by Vance Koven — April 6, 2015 at 1:41 pm

  2. Gil Shaham plays John Williams. A waste of talent beyond words. Unforgivable.

    Otherwise a good mix, but the three-concert Casual Fridays series once again underscores the timidity and lack of imagination of the marketing team. Time to lean forward folks!

    Comment by Raymond — April 7, 2015 at 8:25 pm

  3. Ah, opinions from Informed Judgement! Die Moldau is something that needs to be known–sort of like Beethoven’s Fifth. Once one gets to know Beethoven’s Fifth one realizes that after the first movement the rest is dull but not as bad as the boringly tedious slow movement of Beethoven #2.
    Gossec. I knew of him; thanks to recent programming of WCRB of music of 2nd and 3rd rank (rate?) neglected composers I have finally heard some Gossec. Prediction is that the audience will realize why they haven’t heard some Gossec before–they will not be eager to hear more anytime soon. It could be worse–they could be forced to listen to some Dittersdorf, a composer who did not believe much in thematic development, unlike his friend Haydn. The idea that some of Dittersdorf’s music was actually by P. D. Q. Bach is laughable–PDQ would’ve done a better job.
    Something for Symphony and Radio programming: juxtaposing composers who had differing opinions of each other. Haydn disliked Sammartini’s music, Brahms had a low opinion of Tchaikowsky, Handel said “Gluck knows less counterpoint than my cook”.
    Which brings up choosing WHICH work of a composer to revive. Too often minor pieces of a “cute” style get chosen; I am reminded of the annoying London Mozart Players under Matthais Baemmert on this score. Have they ever heard of the Sturm und Drang movement?
    Will be interesting to see/hear the audience’s reaction to Gossec.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — April 11, 2015 at 3:19 am

  4. I look forward to the Gossec. It is curious that the musical period most neglected by classical music ensembles is the Classical. Only four composers of that period are regularly played – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. They are played a lot, as they should be, but they are not the only contributors to the musical language of that era, which is foundational to everything that has come since. Gossec was born two years after Haydn and outlived Schubert by two months, so his life truly encompasses the era. He was a protégé of both Rameau, the apotheosis of the French Baroque, and Johann Stamitz, the founder of the Mannhein School and one of the progenitors of the Classical style. Gossec was thus at the crux of this revolution, as well as another; in the late years of the ancien régime he was musical servant to two Princes of the Blood, but under the Bourbon Restoration he suffered for his revolutionary sympathies. There is an excellent recording on Naxos of the Symphonie à 17 parties, as well as the much earlier Grand Messe des Morts , a worthy precursor to both Mozart and Berlioz. The Symphonie will not make anyone forget Haydn or Mozart, but it is certainly an enjoyable and interesting half-hour of music.

    There are many other composers from this era that would be worth hearing from, from Stamiitz and Vanhal to Onslow and Richter, and especially the superb Joseph Martin Kraus, an exact contemporary of Mozart who wrote several beautiful, powerful and original symphonies. I would dearly love to hear the BSO perform his Symphony in C minor, the Symphonie funèbre. I would certainly much rather hear from one of these composers than receive another visit from Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony, which I can’t believe is back after only a year’s absence. Really, how can I miss you if you won’t go away ?

    Comment by SamW — April 11, 2015 at 10:04 am

  5. By the way, in no other orchestral work did Beethoven so relentlessly pursue the goal of integration of all the movements into a single unified work as in the Fifth Symphony, and in none did he so thoroughly succeed. Everything in the later movements proceeds from the first, and nothing in the first is complete without the others. There are great riches in each movement, and the transition between the scherzo and the finale is one of Beethoven’s most extraordinary inventions. Anyone who listens only to the first movement has not really heard the symphony at all.

    Comment by SamW — April 11, 2015 at 10:35 am

  6. At the risk of prolonging a digression, I’d remark that Schubert is generally thought of as the beginning of Romanticism (when later Beethoven isn’t placed in that category; I, like Charles Rosen, reject that idea). Onslow, who is very worthy of a good looking-in, as is his compatriot Méhul, is more into the the transition from Classicism to Romanticism (is there a name for this?), along with other notables like Cherubini (of whom Beethoven thought quite highly) and Spohr, whose late work anticipates Schumann and Chopin–we should hear his A minor piano concerto more often–and even William Sterndale Bennett, whose early piano concertos impressed Mendelssohn and Schumann, to say nothing of the short-lived Norbert Bergmüller.

    So sure, there are plenty of composers worth bringing back into repertory, who don’t overshadow the greatest masters, but whose music gives great pleasure. I’m with Sam as to Gossec, let’s find out what the piece sounds like before sneering: every dog has his day. And then let’s see lots more variety in programming from all eras.

    Comment by Vance Koven — April 11, 2015 at 11:28 am

  7. Schubert’s romantic nature, his beautiful melodies and his talent for anguish and lament (as well as his early death) have led to his being characterized as a Romantic, but his models, except in his songs, are all Classical; in fact he is more obedient to Classical norms than the composers he modeled himself on. This doesn’t suffice to make him one of them, but neither does his status as one of the founders of Romanticism make him a Romantic. This is even more true of Beethoven; calling Beethoven a Romantic composer is like calling Jesus Christ a Christian. An understandable mistake, perhaps, but a profound one.

    Comment by SamW — April 11, 2015 at 2:59 pm

  8. It is outrageous to see cheap shot at the music god. Well, Boston is not a Beethoven town. This is a problem for a place to claim fame in music.

    Glad to see Elektra and Bruckner 3 (and the right version, fellow Brucknerians!!!)

    I think there is need to have Bruckner 3 5 6 in one single season, just for education purpose.

    Comment by Thorsten — April 17, 2015 at 10:29 pm

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