Celebrity Series of Boston unveils plans for 2020-21 season. ‘We’re doing this partly because we’re hopeful’

The Colombian dance company Sankofa Danzafro, seen here in its 2018 Celebrity Series of Boston debut, is one the season's 59 mainstage attractions.
The Colombian dance company Sankofa Danzafro, seen here in its 2018 Celebrity Series of Boston debut, is one the season's 59 mainstage attractions.Robert Torres

The lineup for Celebrity Series of Boston’s 2020-21 season, its 82nd, reads like a who’s who of international performing artists. Its 59 scheduled mainstage performances stand to offer experiences including a Symphony Hall visit from the Berliner Philharmoniker and conductor Kirill Petrenko, an evening of elegant Americana with Yo-Yo Ma and Chris Thile, a cabaret night with actor Alan Cumming and NPR “All Things Considered” host Ari Shapiro, and a dance odyssey from Monica Bill Barnes & Company featuring a cast of local performers from pre-teens to senior citizens.

Or that’s the plan, anyway. Following the universal cancellation of public events in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Celebrity Series delayed its season announcement by roughly a month, hoping that more information about reopening would come to light. Contrary to hopes, Celebrity Series president and CEO Gary Dunning doesn’t know anything more concrete than he did a month ago. But the contracts were already signed, the brochures printed, and subscribers were impatient to buy tickets.


“We’re doing this partly aspirationally, and partly because we’re hopeful," Dunning said in a Zoom interview last week. "We’re not naive. We’re not putting our head in the sand — but whatever the fall will bring, we just don’t know, and waiting another month frankly wouldn’t tell us anything.”

In short, Dunning and the rest of the Celebrity Series team are aware that the season’s live events may be limited in scope or (worst case scenario) canceled entirely. But there’s value in staying the course, he said.

“This is what we hoped to do, this is what we had planned to do. It’s also following a pattern that our customers are very used to,” he said. “We’re being very clear with the patrons — this is what we hope to do. And if the guidelines and regulations from various authorities say we really need to cancel, then we’ll deal with that when we know that information, just like we did this spring.”


They’ll take it on an event-by-event basis, Dunning added, canceling or adapting where necessary. For example, he said, “Let’s Dance Boston,” the outdoor “five-day social dance extravaganza” scheduled to open the season (Sept. 23-27), could pretty easily be postponed to the following spring.

On paper, the season offers an appealing mix of top-shelf classical, roots music, jazz, and dance. The Symphony Hall stage stands to host saxophonist Joshua Redman reuniting with his Moodswing quartet (Oct. 4); Ma and Thile alongside bassist Edgar Meyer and fiddler Stuart Duncan with guest vocalist (and Newton native) Aoife O’Donovan (Oct. 26); pianists Daniil Trifonov (Oct. 30) and Evgeny Kissin (April 25, 2021); Petrenko and the Berliner Philharmoniker (Nov. 11); humorist David Sedaris (April 9, 2021); and violinist Itzhak Perlman (April 18, 2021).

Berliner Philharmoniker is scheduled to perform with conductor Kirill Petrenko at Symphony Hall.
Berliner Philharmoniker is scheduled to perform with conductor Kirill Petrenko at Symphony Hall.Courtesy Celebrity Series of Boston

Jordan Hall’s scheduled Celebrity guests include the mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato doing Schubert’s “Die Winterreise" (Nov. 20); Tetzlaff Quartet (Dec. 11); Spanish guitar dynasty The Romeros featuring mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard (Jan. 30, 2021); and Nordic folk troubadours Dreamers’ Circus (April 17, 2021).

On the jazz side, the lineup includes a big-band Jazz at Lincoln Center celebration for the holidays featuring Wynton Marsalis and Rubén Blades (Dec. 12); Julian Lage Trio (Feb. 25, 2021); Maria Schneider Orchestra’s Orwellian vision “Data Lords” (March 12, 2021); and SFJazz Collective’s tribute to Joni Mitchell (April 15, 2021). And in dance, Boston stages are scheduled to welcome companies such as Colombia’s Sankofa Danzafro (Jan. 21-23, 2021), Australia’s Circa (March 3-7, 2021), and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (April 29-May 2, 2021).


The season is scheduled to include the Boston debuts of artists and ensembles including saxophonist Jess Gillam (April 28, 2021), the UK-based Aakash Odedra Company (Jan. 29-30, 2021), and all-female jazz ensemble Artemis (Feb. 5, 2021), as well as Taylor Mac’s “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music (Abridged)," which was a 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist in its original 24-hour incarnation (Oct. 23).

In addition to the mainstage programs, the Neighborhood Arts program is planning more than 150 events across neighborhoods and schools in Boston and Cambridge.

In the meantime, the series has quietly introduced digital content under the umbrella of “Celebrity Series at Home,” including live concerts and the virtual world premiere of local composer Anthony Green’s “Catto’s Courage." With the original March 14 premiere at South End Stringfest canceled, the professional musicians and partner school students recorded their parts for a video. Find it at www.celebrityseries.org/athome.

Announcing the 2020-21 season wasn’t only for the patrons, Dunning said — it was for the artists as well. “The one thing we’re hearing consistently is the artists want to perform. Yes, you can say it’s a financial issue but it’s really a personal emotional issue. They’re performers. They want to get on stage and perform,” he said.

Should performances be canceled, Celebrity Series “certainly can’t afford to pay full fee” — but they won’t be leaving their artists in the cold, Dunning promised. “We know these people, we want to know them again, we continue the dialogue with them. Our business is based on relationships.”


Season subscriptions can be purchased beginning May 6 via www.celebrityseries.org. Individual tickets for most events go on sale Sept. 14.