So the Boston Symphony Orchestra is sounding good, it has a new labor contract, it is financially stable, and it has moved beyond the extremely sad and taxing will-he-or-won’t-he drama of the Levine years.
In short, the orchestra’s future is back squarely in its own hands. Where will it go from here?
Performing arts organizations don’t tend to idle in neutral - they either move forward or backward. Much of the recent discussion has centered on the search for a music director to succeed James Levine (a process detailed in an article last Sunday). But the orchestra’s challenges go far beyond identifying a new leader. It now faces up to three years - or more - with no one in the top job.
After the recent seasons of artistic drift, the BSO can no longer postpone the transformation begun but not completed under Levine. It must reignite its evolution, signal its new trajectory to the city and the world, and ensure that these interim seasons become not a waiting game with pleasant concerts but a time of real growth, artistic ferment, and creative energy.
One big challenge will be interim programming. The orchestra of course has many longstanding relationships with eminent conductors - Charles Dutoit, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Bernard Haitink, and Kurt Masur among them. But the risk is that upcoming seasons will feel like an endless parade of visiting guests, presenting a particular program simply because they are free that week and it’s been a while since they personally led Brahms’s Second Symphony.
Truly vibrant seasons require meaningful artistic through-lines, they need an air of sustained exploration, a sense of a journey, a spirit of joy and intellectual energy, a thoughtfully curated mix of programs that speak to the mind, the body, and the soul. They must also contain at least a few genuine artistic events - those exhilarating, risk-taking ventures by which a year of concerts gets remembered.
The programming of this current season falls far short of this ideal, though in fairness, it represents an emergency patch job, since eight subscription weeks required last-minute recasting after Levine’s resignation in March. (At least the BSO kept its commitment to completing a two-year cycle of Harbison symphonies, exactly the kind of project it needs more of.) The real test will be the 2012-13 offerings, which will be closely watched as a signal of new directions.
There is one quite obvious way to animate programming and bring prominent voices from the field into meaningful dialogue with the orchestra and its public: The BSO should immediately find both a composer-in-residence and an artist-in-residence.
For the last decade, ensembles around the country have been broadening their leadership structure by inviting major musical figures to not only perform or compose a single work, but to participate in shaping seasons and developing larger artistic projects. In 2002, the Cleveland Orchestra created its first artist-in-residence position for pianist Mitsuko Uchida, who held it for five seasons (the relationship is still bearing fruit in a series of Mozart recordings).
The Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009 introduced a position called creative chair and gave it to composer John Adams; the New York Philharmonic that same year unveiled new posts for a composer-in-residence, Magnus Lindberg, and an artist-in-residence - this year violinist Frank Peter Zimmermann. In Cincinnati, while the orchestra searches now for its next music director, it has appointed three creative directors - pianist Lang Lang, conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, and composer Philip Glass - each of whom has curated a portion of its new season’s programs.
By contrast, in recent years, the BSO has insisted on going it alone, even as Boston’s own musical brain trust is routinely tapped to energize the life of concert halls in distant cities. The Boston-based composer Osvaldo Golijov served as composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In 2009, the CSO also established a new position called creative consultant and appointed cellist Yo-Yo Ma. In 2004, pianist and Harvard scholar Robert Levin curated a fascinating two-season series of Mozart concerts with commentary at Carnegie Hall.
If the BSO’s inward-facing approach ever made sense while the orchestra had its own music director, it is certainly no longer tenable without one. Last season the orchestra displayed unmistakable chemistry with composer Thomas Adès, and hopes are high that composer-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen will spark similar inspiration when he comes to conduct this year. The pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard has devised fascinating century-spanning programs at the Berlin Philharomonie, as has violinist Christian Tetzlaff at Carnegie Hall. Instead of just inviting these artists for an occasional performance, why not ask any one of them to develop larger collaborative projects with the orchestra, pursued over many visits? Or closer to home, the world-class musical thinkers in the Boston area alone could offer a potential windfall of ideas.
On a deeper level, beyond bringing more artistic voices into the mix, many forward-thinking orchestras have begun reexamining their broader missions. More groups are recognizing that the ceaseless pursuit of ensemble virtuosity alone simply does not constitute a governing artistic agenda. They have been angling outward in thoughtful ways to engage a public far beyond specialists and subscribers.
Examples are everywhere. The San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas has pioneered pathways in new media, mostly through its ambitious “Keeping Score’’ series. The Los Angeles Philharmonic under Gustavo Dudamel is fostering grassroots El Sistema-inspired community programs designed to fuse music education with a vision of social justice. The New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert has turned the performance of raucously exhilarating contemporary works (like Ligeti’s opera “Le Grand Macabre’’ or Lindberg’s “Kraft’’) into major cultural happenings that lure younger inquisitive audiences - people who are perhaps drawn to new developments in fiction and visual arts but understandably don’t see the concert hall as a place where they belong.
The question is not whether the BSO can imitate LA or New York or San Francisco, but whether Boston’s orchestra can reflect back the cultural richness, energy, and sophistication of Boston itself. With the Museum of Fine Arts less than a mile away, peerless universities in its backyard, and a potentially endless supply of student curiosity on all sides, Symphony Hall still feels too often like an island within the city. When is the last time the BSO built a truly substantive collaboration with any of its sibling institutions?
It’s of course true that Levine - who never showed much interest in music’s intersection with other arts, or with history and politics - at least reached for boldness in strictly musical terms. His early seasons were full of meaty 20th-century works linked to the world of Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler. Later he seemed to set aside larger animating ideas to focus on sublime performances of symphonic staples. For the fruits of both halves of his tenure, he deserves the city’s gratitude.
Now, however, the BSO needs to preserve the musical progress of the Levine years and set off in less insular directions. Its overarching goals must become something more expansive than week-by-week musical excellence for loyal subscribers. The orchestra must also be striving to carve an essential place for this art form in a fractured 21st-century landscape, to link a bunkered concert hall with the cultural and intellectual life of the society at large, and to entice the audience of the future not through pandering or gimmicks but through concerts that demand to be heard.
The BSO’s future starts not in three seasons but now. Will it rise to the occasion?
Second in an occasional series on the BSO as it searches for a new music director.