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Tone Poems and Occasional Concerts Elbow Symphonies


The Boston Symphony has provisioned next season with programs of significant interest; eclectic choices include premieres of new works, some beloved warhorses, a lot of rarely heard 20th-century works, and observations of significant occasions. There’s really very little same-old-same-old during this big, fresh, and even exciting season. The complete calendar is HERE.

And yes, among the great classics we have no Beethoven symphonies — but all five of his piano concertos, with Paul Lewis, and one overture (Consecration); no Bach, some Mozart (Symphony no. 33, Piano Concerto K. 488), and Haydn (Symphony no. 22 — one of his greatest — and Cello Concerto), but also the Schubert “Great” C major, D 944 (in November; this symphony has had several BSO performances in recent years, and maybe someone will reprint my book on it). The great Romantic era includes some heavy masterworks: Berlioz Romeo and Juliet (this was a favorite of Charles Munch), Wagner Tristan Prelude and Transfiguration, Mendelssohn Reformation, Schumann Fourth, Liszt Préludes and Prometheus, Dvořák Seventh, and Tchaikovsky Fourth; two favorite violin concertos, Bruch and Brahms, that I have always regretted as boring despite a few nice moments; and two favorite piano concertos, Tchaikovsky First and Rachmaninoff Third. But there are also some Romantic rarities to be especially cheered: Chausson’s Symphony in B-flat major, Franck’s Le chasseur maudit (to be noted for the wonderfully beastly sound of a melody for tuba and low clarinet), a “staged performance of Grieg’s Peer Gynt,” which remains to be explained (see “Midnight Sun Festival,” below), and a real exotic, Overture to The Wreckers by Dame Ethel Smyth (1906).

The year 2024 is put forward as an anniversary for Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951), who between 1924 and 1949 built the Boston Symphony into a world-class American institution. (It might be noted that two other composers, Arnold Schoenberg and Hugo Leichtentritt, share with him the same birth and death years; Leichtentritt was the oldest, born on January 1.) Koussevitzky even invited Schoenberg to conduct the BSO in his Pelleas und Melisande in 1934; so, as long as we’re observing anniversaries, would it not be fitting to have a Schoenberg work programmed next season? I’d first suggest trading Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto for Brahms’s for Hillary Hahn’s appearance; her recording of that legendarily ferocious work is the most beautiful I’ve yet heard anywhere. But we will also get Berg’s Violin Concerto (Leonidas Kavakos), composed at about the same time, which is as Romantic as Schoenberg’s is neoclassic, and it’s still well known. Yo-Yo Ma will weigh in with both of Shostakovich’s cello concertos.

Other piano spectaculars include a concerto by Ligeti (for his centennial), Ravel’s Left Hand, and Scriabin’s Prometheus: Poem of Fire, one of the great Russian mystic’s last works, which will include parts for color organ (“Luce” in the score, notated with sharps and flats) and chorus. (Stravinsky referred to this and the Poem of Ecstasy as “severe cases of musical emphysema.”) But the biggest event in this category is Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, with Yuja Wang playing the piano solo in all ten movements; this huge monument to esoteric love celebrates the ¾ centennial of its premiere here in Boston, and even though it is insufferably long and deliciously vulgar, it is pretty wonderful nevertheless. (If you want to see how Yuja Wang does it, there’s a quite good performance on YouTube, ably conducted by Dudamel.) Turangalîla takes up an entire program; but the BSO would be well advised to precede it with a short warmup, such as Debussy’s Clair de lune or Ravel’s Pavane, rather as the Berlin Philharmonic did 60 years ago in the Boston when they played Eine kleine Nachtmusik followed by the Bruckner Eighth.

Two operas in concert performance are slated: Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, which has been heard here before, and Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (original 1932 version), which has not; that was the opera officially scorned by Stalin, at a time when the composer expected to be sent off to the gulag at any moment. In the ballet category, Ravel’s Mother Goose is offered complete, with all the extra Prelude and interludes, on the same series with Elena Langer’s The Dong with a Luminous Nose, American premiere (after Edward Lear), and two fine Czech items: Dvořák’s Noon Witch (I’ve been urging this piece for the BSO in these pages for more than ten years), and Janáček’s great Sinfonietta (name another piece that calls for nine trumpets plus two bass trumpets, among other brass). For other ballets: Stravinsky is represented by Rite of Spring and the smaller, delicate Orpheus.

Specialty celebrations include two nights of the Boston Pops honoring John Williams, at the end of September; a “Music of the Midnight Sun” for the leap year (Nielsen, Outi Tarkiainen, and some less-often-heard Sibelius: Oceanides, The Bard, Tapiola); and an entire evening’s tribute (March 21-23) to jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who died last month.

New music, including BSO commissions as well as local premieres, include works by Tania Léon (Cuban, b. 1943), Sofia Gubaidulina (Russian, b. 1931), Imán Habibi (Iranian-Canadian, b. ?), James Lee III (American, b. 1975), Peter Lieberson (American, 1946-2011), Hannah Kendall (British, b. 1984), Anna Clyne (British, b. 1980), Thomas Adès (British, b. 1973), and Anna Thorvaldsdottir (Icelandic, b. 1977). Here I will make my usual observation that no music by local composers is included, and here it’s worth remembering that the beloved Koussevitzky went out of his way to promote Bostonians (Koussevitzky and Munch, for instance, between them directed world premieres of no less than 8 works by Walter Piston, whose music is now promoted by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project with conspicuous success.) And it wasn’t just Kousy who nodded to locals for new scores. In its first decades the young BSO featured new works by Bostonians such as co-concertmaster Charles Martin Loeffler, John Knowles Paine, Arthur Foote (1853–1937), George Chadwick (1854–1931), Edward MacDowell (1861–1908), Horatio Parker (1863–1919), and the ladies, Mrs. HHA Beach and Margaret Lang.


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

  1. Didn’t we get a staged performance of “Peer Gynt” a few years ago? I wasn’t too impressed by the staging.

    I can’t name another piece with nine trumpets and two bass trumpets, so I will name one with FIFTEEN trumpets plus pipe organ: Symphony number 3 (“Symphony-Poem”) by Aram Khachaturian. I have the classic Stokowski recording on RCA. I’d love to hear it in Symphony Hall. Or just as the background music for a 25-minute fireworks display over the Esplanade.

    Comment by Mark Lutton — April 14, 2023 at 12:18 am

  2. Mark,
    I can name a piece that comes mighty close to the number of trumpets — I believe 10.
    Have you heard the A. Panufnik Sinfonia Sacra (Symphony #3)? The composer recorded it twice, and Solti/Chicago performed it to great acclaim. Not a masterpiece for sure, but the final hymn is quite effective. And loud.

    Comment by Brian Bell — April 14, 2023 at 9:56 am

  3. For the second season in a row there is no Bruckner, even though 2024 marks the 200th anniversary of his birth. It is too bad that Andris Nelsons’s Leipzig Bruckner cycle hasn’t spilled over into Boston. There is no Mahler symphony either; I wonder when was the last time that happened.

    Comment by Paul — April 15, 2023 at 2:09 pm

  4. As I gave the article a once-over, there was nothing I saw that had me thinking, “I’ve got to hear that.” On second though, I do want to hear the Haydn symphony. But over that past few months, I’ve had the feeling that I’d do well to scale back on my subscriptions, which amount to 14 Thursday concerts per season.

    I’ll look more carefully at the subscription material when it arrives, but at this point is seems BSO management doesn’t want to perform much that I want to hear. They’re driving me away. And I thank Mark DeVoto for pointing out some of the lacunæ.

    OTOH, the H+H will have me at ten of their eleven concerts next season.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — April 15, 2023 at 7:30 pm

  5. Agree that this will be an interesting season, but as another commenter noted, no Bruckner nor any Mahler – and this is (one of ) Andris Nelsons’ orchestra. Even under Seiji, the symphony had more Bruckner and Mahler.

    Comment by Jim Perrin — April 18, 2023 at 8:29 pm

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