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BSO Subscription Series Announced


Next year’s Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 2017-2018 Season contains a few real surprises. Once again there is a tendency toward the theater, the most radical choice being the complete Act II of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Definitely a good choice, and preceded by the lovely Siegfried Idyll for chamber ensemble. Grieg’s familiar Peer Gynt music shares a program with Beethoven’s unfamiliar but excellent Egmont music in what is perhaps billed as a staged performance; these should be interesting. And Berlioz’s complete Damnation of Faust conducted by Charles Dutoit (I still remember the performance at Tanglewood in 1960 with Martial Singher as Mephistopheles; at one point Munch gave such a sweeping sidewise beat that Singher had to jump out of the way, to the laughter of the audience).

Leonard Bernstein’s centenary is being celebrated with four works on opening night (September 22, including the very fine Serenade) and two series in March, with Symphony No. 2 (Age of Anxiety), a fine, exciting work, and No. 3 (Kaddish), another theatrical piece which I remember only as pretentious and rather uninteresting.

Much of the remaining repertory is standard, even conventional, with a handful of always welcome new works. Mahler is represented by Symphonies 1 and 3 (maybe, just maybe, Andris Nelsons will choose the 1893 version of Mahler’s First, the five-movement version for a Brahms-sized orchestra; very worthy and very rarely heard, although the Tufts Orchestra did it last November). Stravinsky is present with the complete Firebird (welcome in any year even though we heard it two years ago; much better than any suite) and the Divertimento from The Fairy’s Kiss, another good choice, seldom heard. Bruckner: the Fourth Symphony, and that’s enough of him for one year.

Second Viennese School: no Schoenberg or Berg, only Webern’s Passacaglia, Op. 1, and his fascinating orchestration of the 6-part Ricercar from Bach’s Musical Offering. Prokofiev: Violin Concerto no. 2 (we heard it too a few years ago) and Symphony No. 5, a 1940s Koussevitzky monument. Shostakovich: three symphonies (4, 11, 14), part of Nelsons’s ongoing BSO cycle; the Fourth occupies an entire program. Janáček: Sinfonietta (a nice surprise—is there any other work in the entire repertory that calls for two bass trumpets?). Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, which sounds better and better every year. Benjamin Britten (Simple Symphony, too easy), Richard Strauss (Alpine Symphony, noisy and boring; Don Quixote ditto); a few pieces I don’t know at all: Sibelius En saga, Bartók Portraits, Ligeti Concert Românesc.

Besides the Egmont music, Beethoven is well-represented throughout the season: Piano Concertos 1, 3 and 4 (Rudolf Buchbinder, Martin Helmchen, Paul Lewis), and Symphonies 5 and 8. So is Mozart: Piano Concerto 21, an eternal favorite (Benjamin Grosvenor), and five symphonies. There’s a generous nod to the early Romantic symphony as well: Schumann 1, Mendelssohn 3 and 4.

Violin concertos are in abundance, with four outstanding soloists: Tchaikovsky (Shaham), Dvořák (Hahn), John Adams Scheherazade.2 (Josefowicz)

Andris Nelson at Tanglewood (Stu Rosner photo)

Prokofiev 2 (Kavakos), Ligeti (Augustin Hadelich), Brahms (Vadim Gluzman). There is a generous helping of piano as well: Bartók 1 (Pierre-Laurent Aimard), Chopin 1 (Jan Lisiecki), Brahms 2 (Ax), plus the Mozart and Beethoven, not to overlook the rare and delightful Bach Concerto for Three Keyboards in D minor, with Thomas Adès, Kirill Gerstein, and Jean-Yves Thibaudet (I heard it at Tanglewood in 1959 with Lukas Foss, Seymour Lipkin, and Ralph Berkowitz).

One true surprise is slated for early January: Étienne Méhul’s Overture to The Amazons, or the Founding of Thebes (composed 1811), so unusual that I don’t know it at all even though I have heard and admired two other overtures and four symphonies by Méhul, who influenced Beethoven (who influenced him right back).

On May 4, the last week of the season, is a single concert with odd program of Gabrieli, Marcello, Rossini, and the Mozart 40th, conducted by Moritz Gnann. The other programs that week are the Dvořák 7th and the Brahms Second Piano Concerto, conducted by Haitink in his only appearances of the season.

New works include a couple of premieres and co-commissions, from John Adams (Scheherazade.2), Arlene Sierra: Moler (about bruxism), Derek Bermel (Elixir), Sean Shepherd, Jörg Widmann, and resident composer Adès (Suite from Powder Her Face).

Twelve guest conductors are slated, including familiar masters (Dohnányi, Blomstedt, Dutoit, Haitink), newish faces (Thomas Adès, François-Xavier Roth, Giancarlo Guerrero, Alan Gilbert), and some newest (Gustavo Gimeno, Tugan Sokhiev).

Click HERE for a PDF of the complete program listing.

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.


13 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Dear Mr. DeVoto:

    You are certainly entitled to your opinions, but is it necessary for you to state: “Bruckner: the Fourth Symphony, and that’s enough of him for one year”? If you don’t care for Bruckner, by all means don’t listen to his music. And I really hope you don’t accept assignments reviewing concerts where his music is performed.

    But please also be aware that there are many people, including myself, who happen to think Bruckner is among the greatest, if not THE greatest, composers. As I have repeatedly been told by numerous friends including some German and Austrian ones, in Germany and Austria, it is considered a fact not even open to debate that Bruckner is the second-greatest writer of symphonies, second only to Beethoven.

    I feel sad when I come across comments like yours, not because I think of myself as in any way superior, but because Bruckner’s music has literally changed my life and I’ve had such profound experiences with it that I can only wish others could equally experience. Bruckner’s music is incredibly life-affirming, uplifting, and deeply, deeply moving. But the journey is never easy, and the emotional range runs from negative infinity to positive infinity.

    No one has ever distilled the essence of Bruckner into one sentence better than the German musicologist Hans-Hubert Schonzeler: “Bruckner’s symphonies are in reality one gigantic arch that starts on Earth amidst suffering humanity, travels up to the heavens to the very throne of Grace, and returns with a message of peace.”

    Comment by Mogulmeister — March 31, 2017 at 6:05 am

  2. Dear Mr. DeVoto,

    Sorry to see this disdain of Bruckner enter into your otherwise informative writing. Mogulmeister is right that such personal biases don’t have a place in such a presentation.

    For those of who admire and respect Bruckner…and who had to endure the Levine years with none of his music (and no Shostakovich), we are delighted to have in Andris Nelsons not only an advocate but an extraordinarily gifted interpreter.

    Comment by Jim Levinson — March 31, 2017 at 9:18 am

  3. As a lifelong and ardent lover of (most of) Bruckner’s symphonies, I also find it hard to understand the antipathy toward his works. When people go on about their length, my reaction is “What about Mahler?” But poor Anton doesn’t seem to inspire the devotion that Gustav now enjoys (but didn’t always.)
    Anyway, here’s a lot of ink spilled recently in the NYT by two largely unsympathetic critics:

    Comment by rlhevinne — March 31, 2017 at 10:43 am

  4. Mr. DeVoto must be forgiven. Provoking Bruckner lovers is irresistible.

    Comment by Ashley — March 31, 2017 at 11:48 am

  5. De gustibus and all that. Bruckner, it seems, will always be one of those divisive artistic personages. Mark DeVoto is as entitled to express his opinion as the three prior commenters are to express theirs; yet how typical it appears to be of contemporary polemical style, that not only do the commenters express disagreement, but one of them admonishes DeVoto that it is not even legitimate for him to state an opinion.

    For what it’s worth, I’m with Mark on this. Bruckner always reminds me of Ives’s comment about Tchaikovsky (and even more so): “We all know that butter comes from cream, but how long must we watch the churning arm?” And as to the supposed similarities between Mahler and Bruckner, while both are sometimes described as having an “architectural” approach to musical development, I’d characterize their respective architectural avatars as Antoni Gaudi and Albert Speer.

    Still, de gustibus and all that. To those who love Bruckner, I wish you joy of him.

    Comment by Vance Koven — March 31, 2017 at 11:56 am

  6. I must disagree about the complete “Firebird”. The standard suite seems to me to be a much better concert experience, whereas the complete ballet has its tedious moments. Erich Leinsdorf actually devised his own very effective suite by adding a couple of numbers not usually heard.
    I’m also surprised that you indicate Shostakovich’s Fourth as occupying an entire program. It is about 60 minutes long, and has been preceded by a concerto or a Mozart symphony in its three previous appearances in BSO programs. It’s certainly shorter than the “Leningrad” Symphony, which was preceded by a concerto in the February programs.

    It will be a pleasure to hear Sibelius’s “En Saga” again after so many years, as well as the great Janacek Sinfonietta. I think we heard the Ligeti piece six or seven years ago, and it was a beauty. Also, the Bartok Portraits were on the schedule a few years ago with Kavakos playing and conducting.

    I won’t get into the Bruckner argument except to say that I’ve heard the Fourth and the Seventh too many times, but I’m looking forward to the Sixth in a few weeks. It strikes me as one of the composer’s finest works.

    Comment by George Hungerford — March 31, 2017 at 1:10 pm

  7. Note that Haitink is conducting the last series, the retirement concerts. He’ll be 89.

    The Shostakovich 4 is on one program as the sole piece, one of a series of shorter programs. It’s being performed 3 times on programs that include one of the Bernstein symphonies. (My candidate for the concert I would pay to miss.)

    Comment by Raymond — March 31, 2017 at 1:37 pm

  8. Mr. Koven,

    As the person who I believe you indicated was wrong to admonish Mr. DeVoto for stating an opinion, let me explain, because I’m otherwise sympathetic to your concern.

    Given that the headline of the article reads “BSO Subscription Series Announced,” one would assume the article to be a straightforward presentation of information indicating the upcoming season’s content. In such an article, I wouldn’t expect someone to make comments like: Beethoven’s 8th–why does such fluff get so frequently programmed? (not that this specific comment was made).

    With a headline of something like, “An Assessment of the Upcoming BSO Season,” any writer would be entitled to give whatever opinion they have of whatever is being programmed.

    Speaking just for myself, I have no issue with anyone expressing their opinion–I certainly do. But when one anticipates that the article is a non-judgemental presentation of information, and then judgements ensue (let alone are simply dismissive), then a comment is in order.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — March 31, 2017 at 4:17 pm

  9. Curious that this article has provoked defenders and detractors of Bruckner’s music, but no one coming to the defense of Richard Strauss, whose Alpine Symphony and Don Quixote are dismissed by Mr. DeVoto as “noisy and boring.” Seems a bit overstated, especially as regards Don Quixote, which is one of the great works for cello and orchestra. An opportunity to hear it played by a master like Yo-Yo Ma (or Rostropovich, or Piatigorsky, both of whom I heard memorably in this work) is to be treasured, not dismissed.

    Comment by Stephen H. Owades — March 31, 2017 at 4:35 pm

  10. And while everyone is entitled to an opinion about the quality of a work, to say that Moler is “about bruxism” suggests the writer is more interested in sending us to our dictionaries than enlightening the reader.

    The BSO, for its part, would be well advised to start making the case for such an unfamiliar work as Moler the moment it releases the season’s programs. Of course there will be program notes, but in the meantime doesn’t anyone in marketing think it worthwhile to make some material about the piece available.

    For example this re Moler from WQXR: Written in 2012 for the Seattle Symphony, Sierra was asked to reference the Seattle music scene. The rock group Alice in Chains is the inspiration that she landed on, and after discovering a lyric in their song “Grind” that points to teeth grinding, she took off from there. The music is pointillistic and builds tension throughout; it really does a swell job of representing the grinding of teeth. A continuous time signature of 4/4 is another big nod to the band.

    Comment by Raymond — March 31, 2017 at 11:37 pm

  11. I found this column refreshing.

    We’re all entitled to Mr. DeVoto’s opinion.

    Comment by James Fremont — April 4, 2017 at 8:31 pm

  12. Some of us feel That Way about both Bruckner and Mahler, and I shall go with clenched teeth, but the BSO sounds so good these days I’ll listen to anything they play.

    Comment by Jerry — April 5, 2017 at 5:52 pm

  13. The commentary so far is, to me, a refreshing confirmation of the value of The Boston Musical Intelligencer in the musical life of New England. (I’m interested to learn that Andris Nelsons plans a Bruckner symphony on the menu every year, and I hope we hear all of them, even the D minor, no. 0, which I heard live in Vienna and liked.) I must take issue with the suggestion that my opinion about what ought or ought not to be performed might be out of place in a report on next year’s BSO programming roster. On the contrary, to offer such opinion is genuinely my job, and was what I was asked to do, in full expectation that I might encounter disagreement among my readers; that is what we’re all here for, and I welcome the disagreement if it generates sensible discussion, as it obviously has done. But I also hope that it will be understood that while I like much of Bruckner’s music, I am often critical of what I perceive as weaknesses; Mr. Mogulmeister knows this, because he offered good remarks about my laudatory report of Bruckner’s Ninth that was published on February 24th.

    As for Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, it has been years since I heard it in its entirety in either its original or revised version; my recollection is that the Scherzo movement is quite wonderful, the slow movement eloquent but almost interminably long, and the finale quite as colorless as most of the Fifth Symphony; and that I definitely look forward to hearing it again. But to echo my unfortunate remarks about “enough of him for one year,” I would be happy to hear the Fourth next year, and not so happy to hear the Fifth in addition. (Will somebody please perform the Mass no. 2 in E minor?)

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — April 6, 2017 at 2:42 pm

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