Rocky road. Rebuilding an orchestra is one of the most complex tasks imaginable, requiring delicate negotiations as well as sometimes abrupt firings, a soothing hand with the musicians’ pride but also a new broom to sweep out the old dust. Riccardo Chailly, who at 69 is an eminence on the podium, set out to renew the venerable Leipzig Gewandhaus, historically the orchestra of Mendelssohn. Languishing behind the Iron Curtain after World War II did them no good, however, and where the Dresden Staatskapelle managed miraculously to keep up world-class standards, the Leipzigers weren’t so lucky. I didn’t hear them during their long dark period, but the recordings that came West were nothing special, except in Mendelssohn.
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.
A couple of years ago the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and conductor Riccardo Chailly visited Boston and gave a wonderful Symphony Hall concert of Richard Strauss tone poems. The orchestra, with a lot of young members, played splendidly, with great group spirit. And Chailly gave extraordinary purpose and meaning to the music. He and the orchestra under his leadership showed care and commitment with every bar, every note, and fashioned each piece into a compelling organic whole. Wow! one felt. Friends of mine in New York heard the same program a week later there and had much the same reaction.
Riccardo Chailly, not only one of the great conductors of our time, but one of an even smaller group who have exercised a truly formative influence on contemporary musical life through his championship of twentieth and twenty-first century music—through his many recordings, most of them for Decca, which he has produced since the beginnings of his career in the late 1970s, and through his long tenure as chief conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam (1988-2004), and now, since 2005, as Kapellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. If you survey the most prominent music publications, you will find many accolades, “artist of the year,” “best recording,” etc., and you will find many of his recordings recommended as the best available or the “recommended choice.” His fresh, individual interpretations, always based on a close study of the score, as well as his close relationship with a single recording company over many years, have resulted in recordings in which his ideas and the sound of his orchestras and their halls are communicated with exceptional vividness and presence.