Eight months since the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s first of many concert cancellations, audiences are still closed out of the ensemble’s home in Symphony Hall. But as the virus’s long-feared second wave crashes upon us, anyone looking for a sliver of good news can savor the fact that, after 260 days of silence, music itself has made a return to the BSO stage.
After losing its spring season, its summer season, and now the entirety of its 2020-21 season, the BSO is taking emergency measures to stay connected with its subscribers, with plans to record a total of 15 performances this season and release them on select Thursdays through April. The series, entitled “Music in Changing Times,” will be free to access for subscribers and essential workers. The first of these videos has recently posted on the BSO’s website.
Viewers will have their own opinions on details of the new digital format, in which performances are interspersed with brief pre-produced features (more on that in a moment). But it is unarguably moving to see the orchestra gathered once again as a unified ensemble while looking like never before. The tuxedos are gone. The musicians, all masked except for winds and brasses when playing, are dressed in black. Strings sit one player per stand on an enormous stage extension.
The concert begins with “The Unanswered Question” by Charles Ives, which was an inspired choice. The score’s hushed opening chords float upward from strings with a majestic stillness as the camera slowly descends to reveal the ensemble alone in the darkened hall. Even knowing what to expect does not quite forestall the jolt of first glimpsing all of the musicians reconvened on a single stage, playing only for themselves.
Ives’s sonic essay on the ambiguous sublime, with its twining of disparate truths, feels almost made to order for this surreal moment. We are back. Yet we are not at all back. This is a concert. Yet this is not really a concert. All music lives in the present tense, but Ives’s score stretches that present into a mysteriously unknowable expanse between past and future. The music hovers, like we all do today, within a long suspended now.
Ken-David Masur, who directs the Milwaukee Symphony and was formerly the BSO’s associate conductor, introduces the video and leads a poised, poetic performance. Thomas Rolfs, with his signature burnished tone, lofts the interrogative trumpet solos from a distant balcony. Four woodwinds, standing widely spaced on the stage, search for an elusive reply.
Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony forms this program’s central panel, and is here given a robust, purposeful account. Even the most familiar music becomes somewhat defamiliarized in this new setting. Perhaps this partly explains why the work’s beloved slow movement lands here with a special poignancy, as does Robert Sheena’s lilting English horn solo, ringing out over muted strings.
The Ives and the Dvorak might easily constitute the first half of a typical concert in the Before Corona times. But this program closes with a departure from tradition by ceding the stage to a string quartet by a composer relatively new to the BSO. Four players — violinists Xin Ding and Catherine French, violist Daniel Getz, and cellist Mickey Katzall — offer up a vibrant, compelling account of Florence Price’s two-movement Quartet in G from 1929.
If this work by a pioneering Black composer sounds a bit like Dvorak’s own chamber music, with its ebullient good cheer shadowed by an untold sadness, that is not entirely coincidental. After arriving in New York in 1892, Dvorak developed a vision for a new American music built from the country’s own traditions including spirituals. Price was one among several composers who tried to show where this could lead.
While she enjoyed some success during her lifetime, becoming the first Black woman to have a score performed by a large American orchestra, her music almost completely vanished after her death for all too familiar reasons. “I have Colored blood in my veins, and you will understand some of the difficulties that confront one in such a position,” she wrote to BSO music director Serge Koussevitzky, in one of two letters seeking his support. It appears he never replied.
The works on this initial program are interspersed with two short films, an informative introduction to the life of Price and a brief history of the BSO. In the latter film, it’s notable that the orchestra seems to be at least attempting to start narrating its history in a somewhat different key, by overlaying the customary touchstones — various music directors, the founding of Tanglewood, etc. — with passing references to the civil rights movement, color barriers, and the late arrival of women to the senior ranks of the orchestral world. This of course comes at a time when classical music institutions are increasingly called upon to do more than post anti-racism statements on their social media accounts. They’re being asked to begin grappling — deeply, sincerely, publicly — with their own contributions to broader legacies of exclusion.
For the BSO to fully participate in this process of reckoning may eventually require a significant shift in internal culture as well as a willingness to open up its archives and to be transparent with what it finds. Yet while the massive disruptions caused by the pandemic present an unprecedented challenge for the BSO and so many other orchestras, over the longer term, the imperative to grapple honestly with these issues and reinvent themselves in the process will be a challenge no less existential.
At this moment, the image of the BSO finally reassembled on its home stage should provide a sorely needed lift for its audiences. So will the performances themselves. And intentionally or not, the new series will also focus attention on just what the orchestra is facing at present. No image could more starkly illustrate the reality of an ensemble shorn of its public than the sight of a city’s treasured orchestra performing into a dark, empty hall. Clearly the BSO’s community, despite its distance, must now step forward to fill the void.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Ken-David Masur, conductor. Music by Ives, Dvorak, and Florence Price. www.bso.org/now