On the whole, 2016-17 is shaping up to be one of the liveliest Boston Symphony Orchestra seasons since the first years of James Levine’s tenure more than a decade ago.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) have, at last, fully arrived. Such is the ultimate takeaway from the BSO’s 2016-17 season announcement, released on March 10th, one that marks Nelsons’ third year at the orchestra’s helm and, one imagines, the first entirely planned with his input and fully reflecting his priorities for the ensemble. And those latter appear, on the whole, to be invigorating, far-reaching, engaging, and thoughtful.
As not a few commentators have already noted, the biggest news in this announcement is the appointment of Thomas Adès as the BSO’s first “artistic partner,” a label that seems especially apt considering the British musician’s remarkable abilities as composer, conductor, pianist. For the BSO to officialize their relationship with Adès in this way is really a coup: he’s one of the leading composers in the field, a fine conductor, and an excellent curator of music that’s not infrequently a bit off the beaten path. On top of that, his appearances with the BSO in previous seasons have consistently ranked among among the orchestra’s best-played and most thoughtful of recent years. This appointment promises much even if it begins rather quietly: in the coming season, Adès will be in town to lead a single subscription series, one featuring his own Totentanz plus works by Britten and Sibelius (November 3-5). But he’ll also appear in recital with Ian Bostridge (October 28) and with the BSO Chamber Players (October 30), plus be in residence at Tanglewood and direct the Festival of Contemporary Music in the summers of 2018 and ’19. One looks forward to Adès’ role with the BSO growing over the course of his initial three-season appointment.
When it comes to the actual programs scheduled for the coming season, there is also much about which to look forward. Nelsons conducts an impressive fourteen weeks of concerts (more than half the season) and concludes the first installment of his Shostakovich series with performances of the Leningrad (February 23-25) and Sixth Symphonies (April 27-May 2). What is hopefully becoming a tradition of an opera-in-concert each season this year turns to Richard Strauss’s lush, marvelous Der Rosenkavalier (September 29 and October 1), featuring Renee Fleming and Susan Graham as, respectively, the Marschallin and Octavian. Nelsons opens the season with (like last year) an all-Russian affair, this time highlighted by Lang Lang playing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto no. 3 (September 24) and conducts the final programs of music by Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, and Mahler (May 4-6). In between, he conducts his share of standard works, including Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (February 9-14), Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (February 16-21), and Mozart’s Requiem (April 20-22). He also leads a survey of the complete Brahms symphonies and piano concertos (November 8-19); given the frequency with which the BSO already plays these pieces, this may be the most unnecessary traversal of a given composer’s symphonic output since James Levine sought to tackle all nine Beethoven symphonies in 2009, but at least the ever-intriguing Helene Grimaud will be the soloist in the concerti. Among other highlights: Nelsons is leading performances of Bach’s B-minor Mass (February 2-7) and Bruckner’s underrated Symphony no. 6 (April 13-15).
Charles Dutoit remains the BSO’s most indispensable guest conductor next season, leading two weeks of concerts in October. The first is an all-British program with Yo-Yo Ma playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto (October 20-25) while the second offers the curious pairing of Mozart’s Symphony no. 39 and Bartók’s mysterious Bluebeard’s Castle (October 27-29). Christoph von Dohnányi is also slated to return, leading Jean-Frédéric Neuburger in Schumann’s Piano Concerto (January 26-28), and Bernard Haitink comes to town with music by Haydn, Debussy, and Beethoven in tow (March 16-21).
Otherwise, the season’s roster of guest conductors offers a striking number of debuts or returns of (relatively) new faces. Ken-David Masur (January 5-7), Bramwell Tovey (January 12-14), Juanjo Mena (January 19-24), Sakari Oramo (March 10 and 11), and Franz-Xavier Roth (March 23-25) are all on the docket. Jakub Hrůša (October 13-15), Moritz Gnann (November 22-26), and Alain Altinoglu (March 30-April 1) each appear on the BSO podium for the first time.
In terms of soloists, the season offers an impressive roster of pianists, including Yefim Bronfman (October 6-8), the indefatigable Menahem Pressler (November 22-26), Emmanuel Ax (February 14-21), Mitsuo Uchida (April 13-15), and Radu Lupu (April 20-22). Frank Peter Zimmermann (October 13-15); Yo-Yo Ma; Gidon Kremer; Baiba Skride, Harriet Krijgh, Elsbeth Moser (February 23-25); Alisa Weilerstein; Renaud Capucon (March 30-April 1); and Anne-Sophie Mutter (April 27-May 2) comprise the roster of string players appearing with the orchestra next year. And BSO wind and brass players are featured soloists, too, in a program of Vivaldi, Krommer, Jolivet, Rota, and Schumann (January 5-7).
Among the season’s other noteworthy aspects is the fact that there are no fewer than a dozen BSO, U.S., or world premieres on tap for 2016-17, and from an invigorating array of sources – including music by, notably, a number of young composers. Jörg Widmann’s Trauermarsch is the first (October 6-8), followed by Adès’ Totentanz; there are new concert-openers by Eric Nathan (November 8-12), Timo Andres (November 15-19), and Julian Anderson (January 26-28); George Benjamin’s Dream of the Song (with Lorelei Ensemble, February 9-11); Sofia Gubaidulina’s Triple Concerto (February 23-25); Matthias Pintscher’s Cello Concerto (with Alisa Weilerstein, March 23-25); and Toru Takemitsu’s Nostalghia (with Anne-Sophie Mutter, April 27-May 2). In addition, Cameron Carpenter plays Terry Riley’s At the Royal Majestic (January 12-14) and Gidon Kremer performs Mieczysław Weinberg’s Violin Concerto (January 19-24). In maybe the most enticing concertante offering of the season, Kirill Gerstein gives the first BSO performances of Ferruccio Busoni’s mammoth Piano Concerto (March 10 and 11).
On the whole, then, 2016-17 is shaping up to be one of the liveliest BSO seasons since the first years of James Levine’s tenure more than a decade ago. There’s plenty of canonical music, to be sure, but, often enough, pairings are smart and creative. And it’s hard to argue with the breadth and variety of new and unfamiliar scores the orchestra’s presenting. Yes, Nelsons and the BSO can do more to continue broadening the orchestra’s offerings (there’s plenty of repertoire to choose from, after all) and to engage the not-inconsiderable roster of local talent available (especially Boston-area composers), but this coming year presents a very promising step in the right direction. It builds on the remarkable chemistry between Nelsons, the orchestra, and the BSO’s audience while also endeavoring to take the orchestra and its following down some overgrown and unfamiliar paths. Surely that’s something the BSO administration hoped for when they signed Nelsons three years ago. Indeed, if the orchestra continues on this route and coming seasons follow in the direction of 2016-17, the future of the Nelsons-BSO partnership appears brighter than ever.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.