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At BSO, a new season and a surprising new partner

The BSO has appointed Thomas Adès to the newly created “Artistic Partner” position.Brian Voce
Andris Nelsons, music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Marco Borggreve

There’s big news from Symphony Hall this week — and it’s not just the details of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s new season, about which more in a moment.

The BSO is creating a new “Artistic Partner” position, and it has appointed the eminent British composer Thomas Adès to the post for a three-year term beginning this fall.

In the past, the BSO’s major titled artistic positions — music director, conductor emeritus, principal guest conductor, and the like — have always been held by interpreters, which is to say men chiefly involved with bringing to life the central symphonic repertoire, a canon that is largely closed to new entries. For the first time in its history, however, the BSO will now have a creative figure — a composer — in the highest echelons of its formal artistic leadership. Let’s just pause for a moment to let that sink in.


For this critic, who has watched similar developments generate excitement elsewhere in the symphonic world, and has long yearned to see Boston’s own great orchestra embrace a public mission defined not only through its performances of beloved masterworks of the past but also through its commitment to showcasing classical music as a first-order generative art form, this is a singularly heartening change.

In his new role, Adès, one of the most restlessly imaginative musical voices at work in the field today, will conduct the BSO in his own music and other repertoire. He also will compose a new BSO-commissioned Piano Concerto, perform as a chamber musician, teach at the Tanglewood Music Center, and direct two upcoming editions of the TMC’s Festival of Contemporary Music (in 2018 and 2019).

The appointment comes after a string of thoughtfully curated guest-conducting appearances by Adès between 2011 and 2013, occasions that became highlights of their respective seasons. His specific involvement in the BSO’s 2016-17 local season will be circumscribed, but orchestra officials say his participation will grow over time. This fall Adès will conduct the orchestra in one subscription week of performances devoted to his “Totentanz,” Britten’s “Sinfonia da Requiem, and Sibelius’s “Tapiola.” He will also perform as a pianist with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players and in a special recital, co-presented by the Celebrity Series, in which he will partner the acclaimed tenor Ian Bostridge in Schubert’s harrowing song cycle “Winterreise.”


The announcement arrives during a season in which BSO music director Andris Nelsons has been forcefully criticized for not conveying a more developed or enthusiastic vision for the orchestra’s involvement with contemporary music. That charge notwithstanding, in the new season Nelsons will conduct no fewer than five programs with works by living composers, including new scores by George Benjamin, Sofia Gubaidulina, Timo Andres, Eric Nathan, and Jörg Widmann (a list which, refreshingly, includes composers of a younger generation represented all too rarely at Symphony Hall). The BSO will also premiere a new Cello Concerto by Matthias Pintscher, to be performed by Alisa Weilerstein under the baton of Francois-Xavier Roth.

Alisa WeilersteinDecca / (c) Harald Hoffmann/Courtesy of BSO

For local opera fans, the biggest news will surely be two Nelsons-led concert performances (Sept. 29 and Oct. 1) of Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” with Renée Fleming as the Marschallin, Erin Morley as Sophie, and Susan Graham as Octavian. Pianophiles have a rewarding season on tap with appearances by pianists Radu Lupu, Mitsuko Uchida, Emanuel Ax, and Leif Ove Andsnes, among many others. Kirill Gerstein will perform Busoni’s rarely heard and massively scaled Piano Concerto, and Helene Grimaud will be featured in a Nelsons-led Brahms cycle devoted to both piano concertos and all four symphonies. Among the returning soloists, visits by cellist Yo-Yo Ma as well as violinists Gidon Kremer (to perform the Weinberg Violin Concerto) and Frank Peter Zimmermann will be keenly anticipated. And organist Cameron Carpenter will return with Terry Riley’s “At the Royal Majestic.”


British composer George Benjamin.Matthew Lloyd

Among the returning guest conductors will be Bernard Haitink, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Juanjo Mena, and Charles Dutoit, who will lead Bartok’s one-act opera “Bluebeard’s Castle.” Nelsons-led repertoire of note includes Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6, Brahms’s “German Requiem,” Mozart’s Requiem, Bach’s B-minor Mass, and Shostakovich’s Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7, “Leningrad.”

All told, it should be one of the most diversely enticing seasons in recent memory. And news of Adès’s formal role should amount to more than just icing on the cake. Let’s hope the Artistic Partner position expands in the coming seasons, and that Adès’s idiosyncratic musical mind and curatorial sensibilities are given ample room for expression. The BSO must also redouble its efforts to make sure the music of local composers is not lost in the mix. If all of this comes to pass, we would be looking at a whole new creative complexion for the Nelsons-era BSO.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.