Something’s different about this spring’s Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts, and it’s not the fact that they’re all online.
It’s been a long, lonely year without live music, and it’s probably safe to say most of us are tired of sitting in front of a screen to experience music, even now that the BSO and similar ensembles can safely gather musicians to rehearse and record together. What’s more, most of the repertoire is predictable, the same dignified warhorses that I’ve seen heard put through their paces many times at Symphony Hall and Tanglewood.
No, the high points for me are the chamber pieces that end each BSO NOW virtual program airing in March and April. They’re eclectic, representing a wealth of compositional styles. They offer an opportunity to hear sterling BSO musicians up close and personal. And: none of the pieces were written by white men, the most over-represented group in the concert hall.
The focus on music by women and composers of color was “definitely intentional,” and it was an effort on the part of both players and management, said BSO associate principal flutist Elizabeth Klein in a phone conversation. Not being on the players’ committee, Klein wasn’t privy to the discussions in which this was decided. But when artistic administrator Eric Valliere sent the BSO players a list of chamber and solo repertoire that would fit the monthly themes. Marion Bauer’s “Forgotten Modes” for solo flute piqued her interest, she said. She had never heard of the composer, but she learned the piece and recorded it at Symphony Hall in mid-February. It aired in March’s virtual concert series focusing on music from the years between World Wars I and II.
“It’s just such a charming piece; It’s five little short vignettes that are all really different in terms of their character,” said Klein. “It was really fun to get to know this composer a little bit and the piece, and it fit in beautifully with the rest of that particular program within that series.”
Bauer, the daughter of French Jewish immigrants to the United States, studied with the famed pedagogue Nadia Boulanger and eventually became better known as a teacher than as a composer. “Forgotten Modes” is a brief but lovely study in ancient Greek modal scales, and as Klein said, it was a natural addendum to the all-French orchestral program it ended.
Past programs also introduced Eda Rapoport’s lyrical “Poem,” performed by BSO violist Michael Zaretsky and pianist Randall Hodgkinson, and the alternately playful and poignant “Five Folksongs in Counterpoint,” by Florence Price, the Black American composer whose music has been undergoing a renaissance in recent years. This month’s programs offer chamber pieces by the pioneering 20th-century Black composer William Grant Still, Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Higdon, and local treasure Marti Epstein; all have had at least chamber pieces performed by the BSO, but their names appear rarely enough on the programs that it feels like news.
And here’s one other refreshing thing about this move by the BSO: it chose not to make an event out of it, “highlighting its commitment to diversity” or any of the buzzwords that we’ve come to expect from legacy institutions trying desperately to adapt to the 21st century. After the murder of George Floyd last spring, it seemed like every orchestra was releasing a statement condemning racism, including those for which all-white seasons were the norm; we’ll see if the post-COVID era actually brings any substantial changes.) These unfamiliar pieces fit in with the old favorites like they belong there, because they do belong and they always have.
Now how can this integration and inclusion continue after the doors of Symphony Hall swing open again? Since BSO NOW was launched, in fact, none of the concerts have comprised only music by white men. Joan Tower, Iman Habibi, Carlos Simon and Hannah Kendall have had larger-scale pieces performed by the BSO or subsets of it, but most of the representation of marginalized composers has been in music for smaller ensembles.
Chamber music has always been part of the BSO’s offerings; and the Boston Symphony Chamber Players is one of the jewels of the city’s classical scene, but it plays a distinct second fiddle to the grandeur of the full orchestra’s concerts. But when it comes to music by composers who are not white men, both past and present, chamber music is much easier to find than music for orchestra, and preparing it often requires much more legwork than programming some more Brahms or Ravel and calling it a day.
To perform “Forgotten Modes,” which has never been formally published, Klein went through two flutists to chase down an almost-illegible manuscript copy from the Library of Congress. This past summer at Tanglewood, BSO violist Mary Ferrillo was only able to perform the Black American composer Ulysses Kay’s “Sonatine” because of a fortuitous coincidence of timing; a handful of Kay’s pieces had very recently been digitized from facsimile and made available for performance. Rapoport and Bauer have never been household names, and Price is now getting her long overdue moment in the sun almost 70 years after she wrote a letter to then-BSO music director Serge Koussevitzky describing the fact that she was a Black woman as “two handicaps – those of sex and race.” How many more composers past and present are in the same boat and just as deserving of a turn on the Symphony Hall stage?
A sense of curiosity and discovery shines through these chamber performances. It’s visible on the players’ faces and audible in the music. This feeling should not disappear when concerts resume in person, and neither should the programming return to the status quo. There’s an opportunity here to build something better than before, and it should not be wasted. This must be the beginning of a new chapter, not a footnote in the story of this bizarre time.
A.Z. Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.