By Jonathan Blumhofer
The fact is, the BSO’s 2019-20 season doesn’t risk enough and lacks a true spirit of adventure.
Five years isn’t an eternity. But, as artistic partnerships go, that much time does provide a pretty good sense of where an institution’s leadership stands and where it might go over the duration of a given tenure. So it is with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony, who announced their 2019-20 season — Nelsons’ fifth as the ensemble’s music director — last Thursday.
To be sure, it has its strengths.
A number of guests make welcome returns to the BSO podium, including Sir Andras Schiff, Susanna Mälkki, Giancarlo Guerrero, Hannu Lintu, and Christoph von Dóhnanyi. Several notable pianists are scheduled to appear, too: Yuja Wang, Mitsuko Uchida, Leif Ove Andsnes, Yefim Bronfman, and Jean-Yves Thibaudet among them. Additional soloists performing with the orchestra include Augustus Hadelich, Truls Mørk, Pinchas Zukerman, Johannes Moser, and Midori.
What’s more, Nelsons’ other orchestra — the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig — comes to town in the fall for two concerts on its own, plus a pair in combination with the BSO. Violinist Leonidas Kavakos, cellist Gautier Capuçon, and organist Olivier Latry are among the soloists appearing with them.
Then there are the season’s world premieres. The BSO presents seven — a welcome total, especially as they’re not from the usual suspects: Eric Nathan, Dieter Ammann, Betsy Jolas, Arturs Maskats, Chihchun Chi-Sun Lee, Helen Grime, and HK Gruber.
Furthermore, there are several composers and pieces new to the BSO and Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC), the latter of which celebrates its 50th birthday in 2019-20. Nelsons conducts James Lee III’s Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula, James Burton leads the TFC in Galina Grigorjeva’s On Leaving, Hannu Lintu directs Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Metacosmos, and Constantinos Carydis attends to Periklis Koukos’ In Memoriam Y.A. Papaioannu.
BSO artistic partner Thomas Adès’ annual residency includes cellist Steven Isserlis performing his Lieux retrouvés. And even György Ligeti makes a non-Concert Românesc appearance: Dóhnanyi is slated to conduct his Double Concerto for Flute, Oboe, and Orchestra (with BSO principals Elizabeth Rowe and John Ferrillo as the respective solos).
Taken together, all of the above, plus the relative lack of Beethoven in first part of his semiquincentennial in 2020; the continuation of Nelsons act-by-act survey of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (with Jonas Kaufmann and Emily Magee singing Act 3); the next installments of the orchestra’s complete Shostakovich symphony cycle (with nos. 2 and 12); and a Samuel Coleridge-Taylor/William Grant Still/Uri Caine triple-bill in March, suggests an exciting year ahead.
That it might well be.
And yet, this is a somewhat tepid season announcement.
Take the premieres.
Of the seven BSO commissions, all but two — Nathan’s Concerto for Orchestra and Ammann’s as-yet-untitled piano-and-orchestra work – appear to be pieces of any substantial duration (say, more than ten minutes long). The remainder are curtain raisers. Aside from the Adès, so are nearly all of the season’s other BSO premieres.
The exception here is the is the Coleridge-Taylor/Still/Caine program slated for next March. Now, it’s certainly encouraging that the BSO is following up on its one-night-only celebration of African-American and Puerto Rico-born composers this year — and with a full, three-concert subscription series at that. But, James Lee III’s score to be played in October notwithstanding, it’s difficult to escape the impression that music by composers of certain ethnic backgrounds and stylistic persuasions is being shunted aside rather than fully integrated into the BSO’s repertoire.
Also, rewarding as it no doubt will be to hear the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, one of the world’s great ensembles, over multiple nights at Symphony Hall, the BSO’s previous “Boston in Leipzig” and “Leipzig in Boston” programs have seemed little more than an excuse to replay the canon’s fifty greatest hits (with a couple of curiosities and/or premieres thrown in for good measure). Next season’s orthodox offerings of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and friends – Strauss’s fantastically gaudy Festive Prelude notwithstanding – doesn’t do anything to change that perception.
The fact is, the BSO’s 2019-20 season doesn’t risk enough and lacks a true spirit of adventure. It’s big fallback pieces are all comfortable familiarities: Beethoven piano concertos, Mozart piano concertos; favorites by Strauss, Mahler, Grieg, Ravel, Gershwin, Saint-Saëns, and Tchaikovsky (among others).
None of it is bad music, per se. But, as I’ve written about season’s past, this is the same fare we’re fed year-in and year-out: surely, it isn’t all there is to play, is it? Yes, Grieg’s Piano Concerto, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto (and Fifth and Sixth Symphonies), Gershwin’s Piano Concerto, and Beethoven’s Seventh will sell tickets and draw crowds. But is that all this artform is good for?
I think not.
Out west, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony are in the business of embracing just about everything – old and new, technologically plugged-in and purely acoustic, traditional and avant-garde, etc. – and thriving. Closer to home, the New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra have taken major steps to update their repertoire.
From the Boston Symphony, though? We get more of the Euro-centric, largely non-American same.
Must that be the case? It shouldn’t be — and, further, I’d contend that changing the status quo needn’t be a threatening process. What might a revamped BSO season announcement look like?
Start by trading out Grieg’s Piano Concerto for Amy Beach’s. Then swap out Dvorak’s New World Symphony for George Whitefield Chadwick’s Second (or Third or his complete Symphonic Sketches. Or, if, like me, you really like your Beach, pencil in the Gaelic Symphony instead of the BSO’s second-annual reading of the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra or Tchaikovsky Five). Play a symphony by David Diamond or William Schuman instead of the Symphonia domestica (or one by both: that’s some pretty long-winded Strauss). Then bring back Michael Gandolfi’s Ascending Light — a piece whose premiere in 2016 brought down the house — instead of another iteration of Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony.
Want more? Play some mind-bendingly inventive essay by Andrew Norman (the BMOP-commissioned Play is a modern masterpiece and his percussion concerto, Switch, is likewise terrific). Add in some hypnotic somethings by Julia Wolfe (perhaps her recent oratorio Fire in My Mouth) and Nina C. Young (try Agnosco veteris for starters). Top it off with some Philip Glass (the Violin Concerto no. 1 or the succinct – and slightly zany – Symphony no. 11). All of that’d shake up 2019-20 nicely. Then go on and do it again the following year with different composers/pieces.
Indeed, to judge from two of the current season’s best-received performances — Kirill Gerstein’s blazing traversal of Thomas Adès’ riotous, brilliant Piano Concerto and James Carter’s knock-out performance of Roberto Sierra’s Concerto for Saxophones and Orchestra — there’s an audience here that’s clamoring for new, fresh, unfamiliar music, style be damned. It’s up to the BSO to deliver it.
Given the orchestra’s strengths — its prestige; sound fiscal health; an intellectually-engaged, inquisitive public; a charismatic music director; and a core of musicians who are playing, these days, as well or better than they have at any point in the last fifteen years — now should time to start boldly spending some capital.
Then again, considering the institution’s reluctance to decisively take the plunge these last five years, perhaps a cautious, piecemeal approach — gingerly exploring the new and obscure while not venturing too far outside the tame, familiar confines of the canon — is be the best we can hope for, programmatically, from the BSO during the Nelsons era. If so, though, that would mean a golden opportunity had been squandered.
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.