An orchestra’s season-opening concert is an intensely ceremonial affair, and leading it is the clear prerogative of its music director.
So when the Boston Symphony Orchestra announced James Levine’s resignation from the post in March, it faced the delicate question of how to open its first season of the post-Levine era. The BSO had faced a similar dilemma between the Seiji Ozawa and Levine eras. On the opening nights of 2002 and 2003, the orchestra brought in familiar, well-known maestros - Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos and Bernard Haitink, respectively.
This time, though, the BSO is trying something different. When the orchestra’s 131st season begins tonight, it will do so not with a venerated conductor but under the guidance of violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, who will both be both soloist and conductor in Mozart’s Violin Concertos nos. 3 & 5. (The remaining three Mozart concertos will be played tomorrow night, with Mutter soloing and conducting again.)
Calling Mutter “one of the great musicians of our time,’’ Mark Volpe, the BSO’s managing director, said in an interview that Mutter had already been engaged for the season opener, most likely to play a “big Romantic concerto’’ with Levine. But when it became clear that Levine would not be there, the orchestra decided that they could simply turn the entire evening over to her and make a two-concert project out of the Mozart works.
“This is a season without a music director,’’ Volpe said. “And we thought it appropriate to open with sort of a nontraditional approach to the podium.’’
In an interview at Symphony Hall earlier this week, Mutter was effusive in her praise of the BSO after finishing their first rehearsal. “The playing of the orchestra is just wonderful - such fast understanding of style, great work ethic.’’ She had also learned that, according to the orchestra’s librarian, she was the first violinist in the BSO’s history to play all five of the Mozart concertos as a cycle.
Part of what keeps performances of the same repertoire fresh, she said, was taking it up with different people. She singled out oboist Keisuke Wakao’s playing during the rehearsal. “It’s so wonderful and adds something unique to the concerto. And that of course changes the whole timbre of the piece.
“People totally underestimate the influence of your musical partners,’’ she went on. “It’s like in sports a little bit - every day is different, and you can never take anything for granted. You never know what else might inspire you besides your own passion.’’
Mutter has been a frequent soloist in Boston, and though she’s never before conducted the BSO, she called the opportunity to lead opening night, “a huge honor.’’ Speaking in an earlier conversation from her mountain home in the small Austrian town of Kitzbühel, Mutter said, “I’m happy to have a musical partner on my side who will be, I guess, excited about having more responsibility, each and every one of the players, than they usually have when there is a conductor.’’
She was not at all intimidated by the prospect of leading these works “from the fiddle,’’ as she put it, and with good reason. She has played the dual role of soloist and conductor in Mozart’s concertos a number of times and recorded them with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 2005. With the small forces Mozart calls for, the concertos are a kind of extended chamber music, and Mutter sees her chief role as helping to elicit that kind of intimate give-and-take.
“You exchange [with them] in a much more personal and much more, how shall we say, spontaneous level without a conductor,’’ she said. “It has very much to do with very careful rehearsing and knowing the spirit in which we want to be spontaneous in the evening.
“[Conductor Herbert von] Karajan used to say, ‘The orchestra is like a horse and I am the jockey,’ ’’ she continued. “The horse has to jump, but I will try to bring the horse into the perfect position for the jump. And this is pretty much also the role that I feel I am in. I would like to bring every single [one] of my colleagues into a position where he or she feels totally comfortable in answering in my musical language.’’
Mention of Karajan is appropriate, for he launched Mutter’s career when she was a teenager, became her chief mentor, and accompanied her on her first recording - the same two Mozart concertos that will be performed tonight. From there her career has followed a steep upward trajectory.
Today, at 48, she is one of the most complete musicians in our midst: a commanding soloist in traditional repertoire, a strong advocate for new music (her latest recording on the Deutsche Grammophon label contains works written for her by Sebastian Currier, Wolfgang Rihm, and Krzysztof Penderecki), and a committed mentor to a younger generation (she established her first foundation to help young musicians when she was 22).
‘The playing of the orchestra is just wonderful - such fast understanding of style, great work ethic.’
She also has a glamorous public image. Tonight, for example, she was scheduled to appear on the “Late Show With David Letterman,’’ taped earlier. For a time it seemed that every review of a Mutter performance was obliged also to mention the strapless gowns that she wears on stage. Words like “queen’’ and “goddess’’ are used to describe her. The persona has undoubtedly contributed to her fame; how much it has contributed, has been a topic of debate for some.
“It depends on what one wants to know of a person,’’ she replied when the topic was raised. “[If] you just look at the surface, you see a wonderful dress - I totally agree. But there are always, as we know, very different aspects, to interesting people. . . . It may be that the broader audience is not so aware of my interest in contemporary music. But a core audience who loves music and cares about its existence and passing it on to their children does care. And I have great respect for their constant support.’’
Any lingering doubts about her musicianship or her ability to handle the dual roles of violinist and conductor should have been erased last year, when she gave a performance that had more spontaneity than expected. She was scheduled to play the Beethoven violin concerto to open the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s season. Just minutes before the concert was to begin, Chicago’s music director, Riccardo Muti, became ill and was unable to take the stage.
Mutter was asked if she would conduct, as well as play, the Beethoven - a piece she’d never led and more complex than the Mozart. Her only question was whether the players would be comfortable. “I would have never done it without the total consent of the orchestra - which I got, strangely enough,’’ she said with a laugh. “So everybody concentrated and they played wonderfully well.’’ She added, though, that it was not an experience she cared to repeat.David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.