When it was announced that the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s music director Andris Nelsons would be taking on the directorship of a second ensemble, Leipzig’s venerable Gewandhaus Orchestra (GHO), some local audience members were understandably ambivalent. Yes, they said, it was great to see the music director’s star continuing to rise in Europe. But for Boston’s own interests, could a second major post in actuality mean anything but bifurcated calendars, divided attention, and diminished odds for sustained local leadership? Moreover, hadn’t we seen this movie before?
Since that time, fortunately, the two ensembles have at least attempted a novel approach to sharing a music director. Rather than both groups resigning themselves to a zero-sum game, Nelsons’s dual posts have become the occasion for forging a closer trans-Atlantic connection. Formalized in a BSO-GHO alliance, the two groups now have several ongoing projects, ranging from player exchanges to co-commissions and educational initiatives.
But the beating heart of the partnership finally arrived this week in the form of an actual GHO residency in Symphony Hall. The Leipzigers had not been here since a brief in-and-out stopover on a national tour in 2014 under the baton of then-director Riccardo Chailly. Given the economics of touring, one night is typically all Boston ever gets from any major visiting orchestra. Yet by the time the GHO leaves on Sunday, its members will have participated in five performances over seven days. Two of those five were planned as free-standing programs featuring the Leipzigers alone. The remaining three performances were slated in a somewhat awkward combined format with players of the BSO.
My Globe colleague Zoë Madonna has already reviewed the first of the solo Leipzig programs. I caught the second of two on Tuesday evening, a radiant and superb performance of works by Mahler, Schumann, Wagner and Mendelssohn, with the clear star of the evening as the orchestra itself. As the oldest civic orchestra in the world, the GHO has a distinctively dark-hued sound, one that was preserved in part by the geopolitical realities of decades spent behind the Iron Curtain. These days the GHO is a more international ensemble but its core identity is still deeply German. And its collective sound is still a thing of wonder.
In Mahler’s “Blumine” and Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony, the brass playing rang out with sylvan elegance, and the winds were impeccably smooth and blended. But what impressed most was the tonal refinement and glowing presence of the GHO strings. These same players also perform routinely at the Leipzig Opera and in weekly performances of the Bach Cantatas, and these experiences surely contribute to the deep coherence in their sound. Bodies sway with the flow of the music, and these musicians — from the very back of the sections to the front — display an unmistakable investment in the performance at hand. There is no dissipation of energy onstage. The effect is closer to chamber music.
For his part Nelsons brought off the Overture to Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman” as the dazzling orchestral showpiece that it is, and led a well-paced, compelling account of the Mendelssohn. Soloist Gautier Capuçon navigated the Schumann Cello Concerto with poise and vehemence where required. He then played an encore by Dvorak that enlisted the full cello section of the orchestra in a stream of lyric warmth.
Thursday’s two-orchestra extravaganza had a very different feel — more like a gala celebrating the alliance itself, with the two ensembles appearing not in succession but in various combinations, their personnel sharing the stage. Bookending the program were works that could put to use these massive orchestral forces — Strauss’s “Festliches Praeludium” and Scriabin’s “Poem of Ecstasy.”
The Strauss is a pièce d’occasion written for the 1913 opening of Vienna’s Konzerthaus and it wears its purely festive agenda without apology. Thursday’s performance, featuring Olivier Latry on Symphony Hall’s organ, seemed to have the desired rousing effect. Compared to the Scriabin, it also gave the impression of having received more rehearsal time, perhaps because it was being recorded for future release on compact disc, seemingly as part of a new Strauss recording project that will involve both orchestras.
For me the evening’s musical highlight was Haydn’s high-spirited Concertante in B-flat for four soloists — in this case GHO violinist Frank-Michael Erben, GHO cellist Christian Giger, BSO principal oboe John Ferrillo, and BSO principal bassoon Richard Svoboda. The music’s early-classical proportions were a welcome contrast with Strauss’s gigantism, and the soloists displayed an eloquent sense of conversational exchange.
By contrast Schoenberg’s “Verklärte Nacht, offered by a large string section composed of players from both ensembles, fared less well. This is a stunningly beautiful score that here played out as a succession of moments, some of them transfixing, yet overall lacking a unified sound conception, careful ensemble work, and a strong interpretive throughline from Nelsons. One sensed that either orchestra alone could have done much more with this piece than both were able to accomplish playing together. And could one really expect otherwise, given the two orchestra’s radically distinct traditions, and the fact that this was their first-ever joint concert?
But the music itself — at almost every gala concert — takes a back seat to the occasion. The German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was in attendance, and delivered greetings from the stage. A mostly full Symphony Hall seemed to be enjoying itself, reveling in the sheer volume and sonic opulence of the Scriabin. On the way out, the party continued with free beer and pretzels.
Looking ahead, and speaking in purely artistic terms, it seems clear that this partnership makes the most sense when providing opportunities to appreciate and learn from the differences in these two storied orchestras on their own terms. Integrated joint performances may affirm the partnership from a marketing perspective, but I just don’t see the artistic justification for occasions that merge en masse the personnel of these two orchestras. Such a gesture requires blurring the very distinctions that make each ensemble cherished and unique. Plans are already afoot for a two-orchestra tour in 2022. Let’s hope both orchestras will be performing separately on that occasion, and that the Leipzigers, as an ensemble that is clearly thriving under Nelsons’s watch, return to Boston soon.
LEIPZIG GEWANDHAUS ORCHESTRA + BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Oct. 29 and 31. Joint program repeats Nov. 1 (in abbreviated form) and Nov. 2.