The major news from Boston was the ascendancy of Andris Nelsons, firming up his place as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which included a quickly agreed upon three-year extension of his contract into the 2020-2021 season. This announcement was soon followed by the less happy surprise for Bostonians of Nelsons also accepting an offer from the eminent Leipzig Gewandhaus, the orchestra whose music director was once no less than Felix Mendelssohn, to take on that very position, beginning in the 2017-2018 season, thus dividing the loyalties of the young maestro (who just turned 37), though evidently with the possibility of collaborations between the two orchestras. (Remember when some people were complaining about James Levine dividing his time between the BSO and the Metropolitan Opera?)
While spending almost twenty years closely listening to Bach’s more than two hundred cantatas bewildered some of my friends would decry my project and say, “They all sound alike – how can you tell them apart?” These people, sophisticated music lovers who simply did not care for the Bach vocal repertory, refused to admit they glossed over these works in a superficial way. To my ears, of course, each and every cantata had uniqueness that clearly articulated it from the rest of the pack. Yes, there were many structural similarities, and Bach’s musical language is the unifying tongue, but, to say Bach’s cantatas all sounded alike seemed heretical, born of inferior taste and auditory skills. Years later, when I started watching birds, I came upon the family of yellow warblers, illustrated in Roger Tory Peterson’s definitive field guide. Boggled by the subtle markings which distinguish these birds, it seemed that page after page pictured the same damned bird, and I recalled my friends’ remarks about Bach’s vocal works.
A close look at the notes for this 2-disc set will give one some insight into the splendeurs et misères of the contemporary classical recording industry. A grant from Fond for lyd og bilde, the Norwegian arts organization, and Leif Ove Andsnes’ Gilmore Artist Award funded this recording, making it possible for a major commercial label, EMI, to release a recording of comparatively little-known music by a great composer, played by internationally renowned musicians. Mr. Andsnes owns the copyright and has licensed the recording to EMI. Presumably the recording company didn’t think that the famous names sufficed to counterbalance the obscurity and dubious reputation of the music, for unfortunately the trios, especially the second and third, were lumped in with the rest of what the older literature considered “bad Schumann,” commonly disparaged as unmelodic, difficult, and confused. The rediscovery of these fascinating and very beautiful works has been one of the great pleasures of the past twenty years, once musicians learned how to play them and audiences, still slowly and partially, have learned how to listen to them.
Mark Volpe and his organization pulled off an impressive feat in creating this season at such short notice. Former Music Director James Levine submitted his resignation only after most symphony orchestras, including the BSO, have established their programming for the next season and published it to waiting subscribers. Add to that the need to corral a feasible number of potential candidates for the open position of Music Director. The Boston Symphony’s 2011-12 is not only solid and nutritious, it is even rather exciting—apart from the added piquancy of the search. The fall will be mainly given over to guest conductors who have worked with the BSO for many years, or at least a few times in the past. The serious contenders for the permanent position will begin later on.
Unfortunately I was not able to attend Alan Gilbert’s first concerts of the season, and this was my first experience of his work with the New York Philharmonic. I did hear his guest concert with the Boston Symphony last spring—a major event, as it included his magnificent Ives Fourth. It happens that both the Boston and the New York program were quite similar and revealed similar qualities in Gilbert’s conducting, although his approach was quite different. Both included a little-known early work by a major twentieth-century composer, and a concerto with a highly-respected pianist, as well as a symphony—eccentric symphonies in both cases, I’m tempted to add.