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Some Thoughts on BSO Rep


Three months later than usual, and after much apparent viral deliberation, the BSO sent out its prospectus for the next subscription season at Symphony Hall. BMInt’s feature [HERE] conveys the story mostly in BSO’s words. The complete calendar is HERE.  

For this writer, the most thrilling BSO 2021-2022 repertoire will be the concert performance of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, the first in Symphony Hall since Seiji Ozawa’s in spring of 1987. “Concert performance” may be only a bashful excuse, because this opera, of an almost unbearable dramatic intensity, can be performed with almost minimal staging — in 1987 they did it with a T-shaped stage erected directly above the orchestra. Berg’s Three Pieces, op. 6, which I have heard twice in Symphony Hall, most recently with an excellent performance directed by Levine (almost as excellent as the one I heard in during the Berg centenary in 1985, in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, directed by Abbado from memory) bring subscribers a second helping of the composer. I wrote the long program notes in the booklets for all of these performances, so I hope somebody reads them, especially the conductors.

Leavening less well-known yet welcome repertory with warhorses seems the order of the day, as ever. Everybody knows Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 (which had its world premiere performance in Boston in 1875) and many of us are tired of its tasteless diminished-seventh excesses, but we also get a chance to enjoy his rarely heard No. 2, which does have some dazzling moments. “Tchaikovsky sells,” Mark Volpe redundantly reassured us in today’s Globe, but what sold me was the announcement of the Second Symphony (the so-called “Little Russian”), a joyful nationalism. Rachmaninoff sells, too; we will hear the beloved Third Piano Concerto (premiered in New York in 1909), but also the unfamiliar and well-proportioned Third Symphony, a distinctly modern voice (composed 1936, thirty years after the Second).

The forthcoming feast of Richard Strauss includes masterpieces (Till Eulenspiegel, Salome’s Dance) and favorite items (Four Last Songs, Tod und Verklärung) as well as overblown stuff (Domestica, Alpine). One also looks forward to some Strauss rarities: Love Scene from Feuersnot (his second opera), and an orchestral fantasy on Die Frau ohne Schatten (his seventh); someday I’d like to hear Metamorphosen and Dance Suite after Couperin. As for Dvořák, it’s good to have the lesser-known Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7 on the list. Ravel’s La valse and Left-hand Concerto have both been heard at the BSO quite recently; indeed, it’s hard to think of anything of Ravel’s that hasn’t. One-shot composers include Bruckner (No. 4), Sibelius (No. 7), Berlioz (Fantastique), Mahler (No. 1), Stravinsky (Firebird Suite, sigh), Shostakovich (Violin Concerto no. 1), Janáček (Glagolitic Mass), Britten (War Requiem, a sure-fire hit anywhere), Bartók (Concerto for Orchestra, a still-beloved BSO commission; $500 really went somewhere in 1943), Ives (Unanswered Question; at least they are willing to go this far), William Grant Still (Threnody). All of these are well-rounded and welcome, even when overplayed (e.g., for Stravinsky, instead of the Firebird Suite, why not Apollo or Scherzo fantastique or the newly-rediscovered Funeral Song?).

I can’t say much about the newest works because the composers (Julia Adolphe, H. K. Gruber, Unsuk Chin, Brian Raphael Nabors, Ellen Reid) are completely unknown to me. (It was enlightening to learn that Reid won the 2019 “Pulitizer [sic] Prize” in music. She will have trouble living that down.) But I will look forward to some of them: Bernard Rands’s Symphonic Fantasy, and John Williams’s Violin Concerto no. 2, because I like their other music.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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