Variety 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.