Because orchestras plan their programs years in advance, the impact of changes in leadership can sometimes take at least one full season before rippling outward in obvious ways. But at the start of Thursday’s BSO performance in Symphony Hall, midway through a season that was fully planned before Gail Samuel was appointed as the orchestra’s new president, I wondered if we are already beginning to see her influence playing out in a more subtle manner.
The moment that piqued my curiosity came when the orchestra was already seated before an expectant crowd, and music director Andris Nelsons walked out onto stage not alone but accompanied by the composer Augusta Read Thomas. After greeting the audience, Nelsons introduced Thomas, who then spoke informally yet compellingly about her new work, “Dance Foldings,” whose American premiere was set to open the night’s program.
The BSO giving an American premiere is hardly new, but underlining the event in this generous manner felt like something extra. There are, in short, many styles with which big orchestras can present new music — it can be done with a tacit sense of apology to the large cohort of more conservative subscribers, as if to say, “we know this is a bitter pill to swallow, but bear with us, please wait it out and don’t worry, your virtuoso concerto and 19th-century symphonic masterwork are just around the corner.” Or it can be done with an austere sense of duty to the future of the art form, as if to say, “you may not like it and we may not either, but this too is part of our mission, and remember, even the music you love was once new.”
Or finally, contemporary music can be programed by mainstream orchestras without apology, with a sense of celebration, as if to say, “these composers living and writing today stand atop the mountain of the very tradition you love, each in their own fascinating and distinct way, and as an institution devoted to the entirety of that tradition, we view them as our heroes.”
The last of these was essentially the message broadcast by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where Samuel spent the last 25 years of her career, and where her sensibilities as an orchestra leader were presumably formed. In LA, bringing living composers in from the cold was in fact one key strategy that helped transform Disney Hall into a site of creative ferment, unpredictability, and excitement — and one way this ensemble earned its reputation as the most vital and forward-thinking orchestra in America.
The BSO in recent years has certainly not left living composers in the cold, but its genuine love for all they represent often feels as if it’s been left to winter somewhere in the Berkshires. The Tanglewood Music Center, in other words, is an extraordinary place where each summer creativity is actively, not grudgingly, celebrated. Yet its ethos and energy often feel woefully underrepresented at the orchestra’s three-season home in Symphony Hall. That’s why, when Thomas herself was so generously given center stage at the start of Thursday night’s program, I wondered whether we were in fact just starting to glimpse a shift in accent, the beginnings of a new approach to new music that the BSO can, should, and, I would argue, must embrace.
While we’re on this topic, and before turning to Thursday’s program, let’s step back to acknowledge a basic truth and basic challenge the Samuel-era BSO will face: Just how far the ensemble can grow artistically will come down (like everything?) to real estate. The sheer size of Symphony Hall — and the number of seats that, within the subscription season, must be filled multiple times for each program — presents a crippling disincentive to creative risk-taking.
But there is brick-and-mortar hope in this direction, too, because the BSO owns the entire block on which Symphony Hall resides. Mark Volpe, Samuel’s predecessor, has said the orchestra is already considering building new “spaces where you can do different types of programming.” This simply must happen. Creating a smaller second venue in Boston, as other orchestras with far more modest endowments have done in their home cities, would unlock thrilling possibilities for reinvigorating the institution as a whole, shifting its artistic complexion, renewing its relevance, and recharging its mission in a rapidly shifting culture. It would also dramatically expand the kinds of audiences the BSO can reach. Once the pressures of the pandemic begin to lighten, creating this second space should become a major priority for the management and the board. There may be no better way to safeguard the ensemble’s future.
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After Thomas’s (let’s hope) auspicious introduction, Thursday’s concert proved to be a satisfying blend of old and new. The composer’s latest score, “Dance Foldings,” nimbly bridges the mythical art-science divide, drawing its inspiration from, of all places, the proteins of the human body. Thomas’s starting point, as she put it, were “the metaphors, pairings, counterpoints, foldings, forms, and images inspired by the biological ‘ballet’ of proteins being assembled and folded in our bodies.”
That certain essential proteins such as antibodies are rather in the news of late, lends the score an extra-musical resonance. And fortunately Thomas has not attempted some dryly literal depiction of molecular ballet — no pirouetting Pikachurin — but has instead used the secret life of proteins to fire her own abstract musical thinking. “Dance Foldings,” 13 minutes in length, comes and goes like a single burst of light. It is complex and richly layered yet transparently vibrant music, impeccably crafted and full of big band-style syncopations that drive it forward with an irrepressible kinetic energy. Nelsons and the orchestra proved equal to their task, delivering a sharply-etched and altogether compelling account.
Happily, the sense of keen alertness that lifted the Thomas performance did not flag for the remainder of the evening. Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s account of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 dazzled not only with virtuosity but with fantasy and poetry in equal measure. The cello solos of BSO principal Blaise Déjardin also matched in mood and character. And while the night had opened with a strong case for presenting new music as if it were already a classic, Nelsons and the BSO ended the night with a vibrantly dispatched Beethoven Fourth, showing how those balletic proteins — in older music — can still dance and pulse with currents of life.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Thursday night (repeats Jan. 15 and 16)