Don’t look now, but new music might be slowly gaining more acceptance with mainstream classical audiences — or maybe, maybe, even more than that. A recent New York Times story reported that the Metropolitan Opera is addressing falling ticket sales and a cash shortfall by programming more new works by living composers because they are, at this point, outselling the classics.
That is an astounding sea change, after years upon years of many orchestras and opera companies reflexively fearing newer works as box office poison.
Closer to home, the Boston Symphony has itself been quietly packing in the new works of late, with four out of the first six subscription programs of 2023 featuring a world or American premiere. How is it all going down? It’s of course too early to share more than anecdotal impressions. But when the orchestra, in the early days of the abbreviated Gail Samuel era, first began asking composers to walk onto stage and address the hall before their works were performed, I would often hear puzzled whispers (”who is that?”) breaking out around me. By this point, however, subscribers seem habituated to the new routine, and rather than bafflement, applause of a seemingly genuine variety now greets each new composer as they take the stage.
That spirit of openness was evident once again Thursday night in Symphony Hall, when composer Carlos Simon, who teaches at Georgetown University, came out to introduce his BSO-commissioned “Four Black American Dances.” Andris Nelsons and the orchestra then gave the work a characterful, well-shaped first performance.
Each movement spotlights a different traditional dance, including the opening “Ring Shout,” which Simon defines as “an ecstatic transcendent religious ritual, first practiced by enslaved Africans in the West Indies and the United States,” rendered here with muted trumpets singing out over angular strings. The second movement, entitled “Waltz,” is moodier and more atmospheric, with slinky woodwind lines and moments of vintage big band flavor, though always with a sense of distanced recollection.
Next comes the rhythmically punchy “Tap!,” in which Simon uses percussion to imitate the sound of tap dance shoes. And finally, in “Holy Dance,” as the composer explains, he channels his own roots growing up in the Pentecostal Church by creating the atmosphere of an ecstatic worship service, complete with semi-improvised (aleatoric) passages designed to evoke the sounds of congregants speaking in tongues.
On its face, the work succeeds as a vibrant, approachable reimagining of these dance forms, with an energy that never flags and a resourceful use of the orchestra. But there are more layers here. It’s often forgotten that so many popular “American” dance forms like tap and the Charleston historically emerged from Black communities before being claimed by mainstream popular culture. As with Simon’s other works that have delved critically into the history of race in American life, this new piece, from its title down through its music, feels like a gesture of reclamation.
“Schelomo,” Ernest Bloch’s rarely performed “Rhapsodie hébraïque” forms the middle panel of this week’s program. Written in 1915-16 and not played by the BSO since the 1980s, this impassioned work is a musical fantasy based on Bloch’s imagining of the biblical King Solomon. In practice its roughly 25 minutes of music provides cello soloists with abundant opportunities for sustained songfulness and deeply felt expression.
Making his debut this week, the young British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason took full advantage of these opportunities in a performance of impressive poise, strikingly rich tonal depth, and ample dramatic intensity. Nelsons and the orchestra partnered him well. For its part, the audience rewarded Kanneh-Mason with a swift ovation and was clearly hoping for an encore. Kanneh-Mason obliged with a lovely Welsh folk song, “Myfanwy,” performed with a certain guilelessness and tonal purity that held the entire hall in rapt silence.
After intermission, Nelsons and the orchestra served up an earthy rendition of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. Its best moments came when Nelsons focused on dynamic shaping and prioritized rhythmic vitality. At times, his interpretive focus felt somewhat blurry and the trio section of the scherzo was taken at an awkwardly slow tempo. But as a whole, the orchestra sounded energized under his baton, and the finale did not lack for exuberance or high spirits.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Andris Nelsons, conductor
At Symphony Hall, Thursday night (repeats Feb. 11 and 12)