The glacial pacing and deep secrecy of most music director searches seems to work against any outward appearance of momentum. Nevertheless, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s quest for its next leader inched onward in 2012.
In January, one major conductor, Riccardo Chailly, seemed to drop off the slate of candidates after withdrawing from two weeks of subscription concerts because of ongoing health issues. The young Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons also canceled one January appearance, but then made a very strong showing at Tanglewood. A few months later, Vladimir Jurowski walked into Symphony Hall for his debut, won the evident respect of the orchestra musicians, and then led a searingly powerful account of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony that is still ringing in my ears. At the moment, for whatever it’s worth, the industry rumor mill has Jurowski as a frontrunner.
For close BSO-watchers, the year’s twists and turns sparked more questions than answers: If Jurowski and the BSO make a match, would the orchestra have to wait until he steps down from his post with the London Philharmonic in 2015? Did Nelsons’s decision to renew his contract at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra mean that he was taking himself out of the running in Boston? The frequent guest conductor Stephane Deneve has led some voluptuous performances of French music, but is he persuasive enough in mainstream repertoire that lies outside his area of specialization? And where exactly does Daniele Gatti stand, a potential dark horse candidate soon to be leading an eye-opening three weeks of BSO programs?
More data should be on its way soon. Nelsons and Gatti will both return to Symphony Hall next month. Jurowski brings his London Philharmonic Orchestra for a Celebrity Series performance in March, and makes his Tanglewood debut in July. Deneve and Nelsons will also be returning to Tanglewood this summer, the latter to lead the same work (Verdi’s Requiem) that Gatti is leading next month in Symphony Hall. BSO managing director Mark Volpe has stated that it’s likely the BSO’s choice would be announced by this March or April. (“I just think it’s time,” he told the Globe.) Whoever is eventually named may also require at least a full season before starting.
The orchestra meanwhile has been justifiably taking pride in its professionalism, its ability to play at a high level for just about anyone who steps onto the podium. At the same time, it’s a shame that, during an interim period possibly stretching as long as a college education, the BSO continues declining opportunities to embrace its own artistic evolution. The programming still retains its creeping week-by-week quality, there are no composers or artists in residence, and no attempts to curate larger ambitious projects that help a subscription season add up to more than the sum of its parts.
If the orchestra is in fact waiting for its next leader to signal new directions, one can only hope that whomever it chooses will bring not just stellar podium skills but a bold institutional vision of what the ensemble can become, how it can renew its claim to a larger cultural relevance, reflect the singularity of its city, and exert its leadership on both the national and international stage. (While its sibling orchestras routinely travel overseas, the BSO has not toured abroad since 2007, a fact that takes a toll on morale.) This kind of transformational tenure has been seen with Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco, and took place with Esa-Pekka Salonen in Los Angeles. Alan Gilbert has brought the New York Philharmonic into the 21st century. I have no doubt the BSO will ultimately find itself a good conductor. But is it prepared to give itself the jolt of fresh progressive thinking it needs beyond the podium?
Meanwhile, looking back on the year, there were plenty of strong performances both inside Symphony Hall and far beyond its walls. My own list of most memorable moments accompanies this article, and as always, it’s a reflection of the passions and peregrinations of a single critic. Every listener no doubt has a private personal list.
Losses in the classical music world this year were both numerous and significant: Elliott Carter, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Galina Vishnevskaya, Charles Rosen, and closer to home, Roman Totenberg, Anthony Di Bonaventura, and Sheldon Rotenberg. It was a big year, too, in classical music news. Donald Teeters bid farewell to Boston Cecilia, and Benjamin Zander bid farewell to New England Conservatory (under far less happy circumstances). Zander’s new youth orchestra opened with flair under the auspices of the Boston Philharmonic. And Calderwood Hall opened at the Gardner Museum. The city also heard for the first time the beautiful, exotic sounds of the instruments invented by Harry Partch, a great musical anarchist with a gentle soul. His works, as composer Lou Harrison memorably put it, “attained an intellectual majesty that yet included hobos around a campfire.” You could still feel the warmth that night in Jordan Hall.