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The Boston Symphony Orchestra is back just the way you left it — for better and worse

Andris Nelsons leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra, with Christine Goerke, left and Gun-Brit Barkmin in "Elektra," in 2015.Liza Voll

When the Boston Symphony Orchestra and music director Andris Nelsons welcome listeners back to Symphony Hall on Sept. 30 for the first time in 18 months, they will do so with Beethoven’s “The Consecration of the House” overture, the work that raised the curtain on the orchestra’s debut concert, in 1881. Subsequent weeks include plentiful Strauss, all the Russians you’d expect (Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff), and a handful of newer pieces, most (but not all) by esteemed European composers. The BSO is back, just the way you left it — and you won’t have to wear a mask to get in either, though unvaccinated patrons are advised to wear masks in accordance with CDC guidelines.


“We are immeasurably excited at the prospect of sharing this music with our treasured audiences once again — our audiences that have given us so much energy during every concert, energy we have sorely missed this past season,” said Nelsons in a statement.

In the initial phases of the season, one may notice a few reminders that all is not as it was. The first seven weeks of concerts will have no intermissions. No vocal works are scheduled until midwinter, when the Tanglewood Festival Chorus returns in grand fashion, with Janacek’s “Glagolitic Mass,” conducted by Jakub Hrůša. On the whole, there are few surprises. For those who enjoy the relatively staid approach that the BSO has settled into with Nelsons on the podium, the 2021-22 season will be a welcome homecoming.

However, for those who were wondering what transformations may have been triggered amid the events of the past year — the pandemic; the renewed attention paid (by white people) to racism in America; the BSO’s refreshingly vibrant virtual concert programs and online offerings such as the “Us: Sessions” collaboration with local hip-hop band STL GLD; and the long-brewing industrywide discussions around a more inclusive vision of what classical music and the concert experience could be — it may feel as if nothing happened since the day Symphony Hall shuttered. While the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra appear to be gunning for status as the East Coast’s answer to the forward-looking Los Angeles Philharmonic, the BSO seems content to throw its arms around the past and pay a few requisite courtesies to the future.


It remains to be seen what will happen when incoming president and CEO Gail Samuel takes the reins from Mark Volpe, whose retirement goes into effect June 20. Will the former LA Philharmonic chief operating officer encourage the orchestra to expand its horizons? Or will she focus more on projects similar to Tanglewood’s Linde Center for Music and Learning, which seem tailor-made to attract more wealthy donors? It is this faction of the audience, not the city and community at large, that the upcoming season feels like it was designed for.

Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra with Mitsuko Uchida at the piano.Winslow Townson

This is not to say that there is any dearth of concerts worth the price of admission this season. Nelsons knows what he likes and is conducting plenty of it, and he’s overseeing concerts with some of the most noteworthy soloists of the season; violinist Lisa Batiashvili, playing Sibelius’s Violin Concerto (Oct. 14-16); pianist Mitsuko Uchida, commanding center stage for Beethoven’s Piano Concertos nos. 2 and 4 (Jan. 13-16); on the same concert, violinist Baiba Skride, in Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and soprano Anu Komsi in the world premiere of the orchestral version of Kaija Saariaho’s “Saarikoski Songs” (Feb. 24-March 1), and the sterling soprano Lise Davidsen in Strauss’s “Four Last Songs” (April 21). Nelsons also conducts a concert performance of Berg’s “Wozzeck,” starring Bo Skovhus in the title role opposite American powerhouse dramatic soprano Christine Goerke as Marie (March 10-12).


Among other conductors’ programs, highlights include a program of music by Black composers led by BSO Family Concerts conductor Thomas Wilkins, featuring electric bass champion Victor Wooten playing his own “La Lección Tres” (Oct. 28-Oct. 31); the BSO debut of conductor Elim Chan on a program of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Brian Raphael Nabors (Jan. 20-22); the always-welcome duo of Thomas Adès on the podium and Kirill Gerstein at the piano, for Ravel’s Concerto in D for the left hand and Adès’s own Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (Jan. 27-29); the aforementioned Hrůša-led “Glagolitic Mass” (Feb. 3-5); Antonio Pappano leading the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and Boston Symphony Children’s Choir in Britten’s “War Requiem,” with vocal soloists Albina Shagimuratova, Ian Bostridge, and Matthias Goerne (March 31- April 2); and the long-awaited subscription debut of BSO assistant conductor Anna Rakitina, leading music by Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, and Ellen Reid (April 7-9).

What’s more, the BSO will present a free community concert to celebrate the reopening of Symphony Hall on October 3, featuring Nelsons, Wilkins, Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart, and Pops laureate conductor/film music titan John Williams leading the orchestra.


Some notable pieces originally slated for the scrapped 2020-21 in-person season will get their due this year, namely Bernard Rands’s “Symphonic Fantasy” (April 14-16) and Julia Adolphe’s “Makeshift Castle” (Jan. 13-16).

Chamber music was an indispensable part of programs during the virtual season, and the Boston Symphony Chamber Players begin their Jordan Hall season with a reprise of some of this spring’s standouts, including Marti Epstein’s “Komorebi” and Jennifer Higdon’s “Autumn Music” (Nov. 7). January brings the world premiere of a new piece for chamber ensemble, soprano and baritone by Michael Gandolfi (Jan. 23).

Subscriptions go on sale July 19, with single tickets available Aug. 30.

A.Z. Madonna can be reached at az.madonna@globe.com. 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.

A.Z. Madonna can be reached at az.madonna@globe.com. Follow her @knitandlisten.