Reflecting back in this space over the last few years, I’ve had the task of charting a less than uplifting series of events and moods at the Boston Symphony Orchestra: James Levine’s health setbacks, his tenure clipped frustratingly short, the uncertainty of who would succeed him, and the protracted waiting game as the search played out (new popes these days are found more quickly than music directors).
What a relief then this year to finally have a fresh contour in the BSO’s narrative. The Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons began his tenure this fall as the orchestra’s 15th music director and its youngest in a century. The warmth of Nelsons’s welcome from local audiences has been unmistakable. After the many months of anticipation, his arrival also seemed to galvanize the players and, overall, to raise the excitement around Symphony Hall to a level higher than it’s been in years.
Nelsons started up with a festive gala but quickly moved on to more substantive music-making, including a beautifully drawn Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony in early October and a riveting account of Sofia Gubaidulina’s “Offertorium,” with Latvian violinist Baiba Skride. A few weeks later, he led a Russian-tinted mostly choral program that persuaded by dint of its own giddy eclecticism, and through the sheer force of commitment in the performances he drew.
Not everything has clicked at the same level. November’s “Rite of Spring” was not what it might have been. And in certain other repertoire, on occasions when Nelsons chooses to liberally underline moment-by-moment drama as it unfolds, the effect can sometimes lose the forest for the trees. But overall there’s been a lot to appreciate. For me the most exciting BSO concert of the year was Strauss’s “Salome” in March, with the orchestra sounding energized, terrific singers from the Vienna State Opera, and Nelsons in quiet command, driving the music forward in his signature immersive style.
So the new era is no doubt off to an auspicious start. There are also still plenty of unknowns. We are getting a good sense of Nelsons as an instinctual conductor. Less clear is the nature of his vision as a programmer, his sense of how the orchestra should grow as an institution, and his ideas for connecting Symphony Hall with the city outside its doors. The BSO is clearly appreciating its new maestro’s star power — there will soon be a Nelsons hologram in Symphony Hall — but let’s hope it’s also encouraging him to be thinking ambitiously on the artistic front, and planning formidable projects for the years to come.
Let’s also hope Nelsons, who concludes his tenure in Birmingham, England, this spring but will likely remain in demand across Europe, has the resolve and vision to truly turn a page in his career by settling into this new partnership and investing in the institution he now leads. That means more than looking for a local apartment or committing to conduct a particular number of subscription weeks. It means integrating into the life of the city’s broader cultural community, and engaging with the bigger challenges that all orchestras face today. The best music directors of course do more than lead compelling performances: they renew the mission of the orchestra.
This year, big round-numbered anniversaries knocked on the doors of several institutions. The Handel and Haydn Society turned 200, and rang in the occasion with a duly festive program this fall, though its most ambitious bicentennial offerings are still ahead. Boston Baroque completed its 40th anniversary season, Cantata Singers its 50th. New England Conservatory announced that its president, Tony Woodcock, will be departing his post, as the school moves ahead toward a new campus expansion. And the youthful Discovery Ensemble announced it was closing its doors. Six seasons of some of the most dynamic music-making in town was apparently still not enough to secure the group the donor support it deserved.
Losses this year from the international scene included Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, the stalwart Spanish maestro who was one of the BSO’s most popular guest conductors, and his fellow conductor Lorin Maazel. The local community also lost three musicians who loomed quite large, albeit within very different spheres: the choral conductor and longtime Boston Cecilia director Donald Teeters, the BSO horn player and assistant personnel manager Harry Shapiro, and the inspired composer Lee Hyla.
On the opera scene, Boston Lyric Opera showed once more the importance of its Opera Annex series by bringing Frank Martin’s “Le Vin Herbé” out from the shadows. Presented in English translation as “The Love Potion,” Martin’s neglected score was revealed in all of its austere and haunting beauty, with help from a light-filled and poetic staging that added up to the most compelling BLO offering of recent memory. Odyssey Opera also had a strong year that included a triumphant (and long overdue) premiere of Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt” in a sold-out Jordan Hall. Topping off the busy year in opera, mayor Marty Walsh declared his support for the building of a new opera house in town. Needless to say, if this comes to pass, it would be transformative.
My list of memorable musical events from 2014 accompanies this article, and as always, it’s drawn from just one critic’s year of itinerant listening. Most events on this list took place amidst large local audiences and speak for themselves, but one particularly unusual moment occurred in a concert hall lobby in Shanghai, and requires just a few words of context.
When the BSO first visited China back in 1979, a time when the country was still emerging from the Cultural Revolution, a young bass player named Lawrence Wolfe forged a warm connection with a Chinese bassist roughly his age named Zhou Hongbin. As a gesture of friendship when he left, Wolfe offered Zhou an album of his own solo performances issued on vinyl LP.
The two did not keep in touch through the decades, nor did the BSO return to China again until this past May, 35 years later. One afternoon, a now silver-haired Wolfe, together with a group of BSO colleagues and journalists, innocently entered the lobby of a Shanghai concert hall for a press conference and then stopped short. Music by Schubert was pouring out of the house sound system at an oddly loud volume. Could it be that the hall staff bore a special affection for the “Arpeggione” Sonata as sonorously rendered on double bass? A few seconds later the ear picked up another suspicious clue: the warm crackle of vinyl.
When Wolfe realized what was happening, his expression evolved from stunned to embarrassed to deeply moved. Zhou, who had kept the album pristine through the decades, stood by the record player, eyes bright. The press conference soon began, with various speeches about the meaning of cultural exchange, but all the rhetoric seemed by that point redundant. Schubert — via Wolfe, via Zhou — had (once again) said it all.