Just call it one more reason for Boston to be grateful to New York. No, not the Yankees signing Alex Rodriguez, big as that was, but the existence of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, now celebrating 50 years of music.
It was 1964, and the orchestra’s administrators and its new music director, Erich Leinsdorf, had decided that Friday concerts at Tanglewood should start at 9 p.m., to give New Yorkers time to drive up from the city. That decision generated the idea of having the orchestra’s first-desk players give prelude concerts related to the weekend’s symphony programs. But since there was no time to rehearse during the already crowded Tanglewood schedule, it was decided that those players would give three concerts during the regular subscription season.
Thus was born the Chamber Players – the first ensemble of its kind, according to the BSO. They made their debut on Nov. 8, 1964, in a program that included the Beethoven Septet for winds and strings. They’ve since played the piece another 95 times, leading Jules Eskin – then and now the Chamber Players cellist – to refer to it as “the Schleptet.”
In fact, though, the group – which now plays four concerts during the regular season – has covered huge swaths of the chamber music repertoire from the 18th to the 21st centuries. It has played a major role in bringing new works into the world with a series of commissions begun in 1985. On Feb. 9 the ensemble celebrates its 50th-anniversary season with a Jordan Hall concert featuring brand-new works by Kati Agocs, Hannah Lash, Gunther Schuller, and Yehudi Wyner. The players also initiated fruitful collaborations with the BSO’s guest conductors and soloists. A prime example of this was a scintillating October concert with composer Thomas Adès at the piano and harpsichord.
But perhaps the greatest gift the Chamber Players offer Boston is a chance to see its chief musicians interacting with the kind of immediate rapport that emerges naturally from spending most weeks of the year playing together. The opportunity to see that kind of bond in such a close-knit setting is rare, and something to be treasured.