In classical music, a year of urgency and of reckoning

Benjamin Ealovega/file

For Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Andris Nelsons, art is a healing force.

By  Globe Staff 

Accurately distilling a year in classical music into a few paragraphs always seems like an impossible task, yet each year we try anew. In keeping with tradition, we have included a list of 10 memorable performances (this year I chose five, and my Globe colleague Zoë Madonna chose five). But even more than usual, 2017 cannot be summarized with the typical chronicles of artistic comings and goings, or the recaps of specific highlights from local concert halls and opera stages. This year in music opened up deeper and more urgent questions about the state of the field and the place of the arts in our public and private lives. 

2017 began with the inauguration of a president who swiftly announced his wish to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Alas, when Donald Trump proudly declared on an international stage that “we write symphonies,” it seems he did not have in mind Roy Harris’s Third or John Harbison’s Sixth. The phrase was part of an attempt to define the battle lines within a clash-of-civilizations world view. The same president sent a clear message by cancelling the White House reception for this year’s recipients of Kennedy Center Honors.


I wrote a column in these pages suggesting that Trump’s arts-hostility was about something more than an aesthetic preference for beauty pageants over Paganini. At their best, the arts nurture the very habits of mind — empathy, irony, compassion, recognition of a shared humanity — that push back against the politics of fear and resentment that fueled Trump’s rise. In short, for this president, it makes perfect sense that not just outspoken celebrity artists but the arts themselves would constitute a threat.

Some of the most memorable performances I attended this year made an impression precisely because of these factors, as if our current political moment had sharpened their edges. This included an Opera Saratoga production of the Marc Blitzstein classic “The Cradle Will Rock.” And even an older work such as “Tosca,” presented by the Boston Lyric Opera with the promising American debut of Elena Stikhina in the title role of a famous opera singer caught in a male web of violence and political intrigue, took on new layerings.

But of course, this was also a year of internal reckoning within the music world, as the #MeToo movement worked its way across the performing arts. The Metropolitan Opera suspended its relationship with James Levine after four men came forward alleging sexual misconduct dating back to the 1960s. (Levine countered that the charges were “unfounded.”) The Boston Symphony Orchestra, where Levine served as music director from 2004 to 2011, announced it would not be engaging him in the future. Allegations of sexual harassment or worse also surfaced at the Berklee College of Music. And the floodgates show no signs of closing. As I write this article, a story on the Globe’s front page details three local schools’ decision to sever ties with Eric Hewitt, a saxophonist, conductor, and charismatic professor at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee.   

These stories are profoundly disturbing on their own terms. They also underscore a more basic need for the classical world to confront its own stubborn notion of exceptionalism, the idea that its leaders, its educators, or its institutions somehow stand outside the pressing social realities of the 21st century. This durable cliché received an unexpected boost from BSO music director Andris Nelsons, who, just weeks before the news stories broke about Levine, was asked on Boston Public Radio whether sexual harassment was a problem in the classical music world. He answered in the negative (and later reversed himself, via a BSO statement). 

Nelsons’s refreshingly unabashed idealism, his boundless faith in art as a healing force, is actually one of his most distinctive characteristics as a musical spokesman. The point is not that we need less of that idealism, but that it must be paired with a clear-eyed commitment to ensuring that the art form’s institutional custodians themselves live up to these high ideals. The BSO began a major community outreach initiative this year, a significant step in a positive direction. In other areas, however, the orchestra remains entrenched in older modes of operation. Of the 83 performances scheduled in the BSO’s 2017-18 subscription season, not a single one will be conducted by a woman. And of the dozens of works scheduled for performance, a total of one piece is by a woman composer. 


The issues with which the field is grappling are not disconnected from one another. In an era of declining musical literacy, as audience members are less likely to have ever set eyes on a score, conductors emerge as wizard-like figures, objects of adoration — we place them on a pedestal, we look to them as institutional saviors, and we watch them, on some level, as as if they were stand-ins or emissaries for the composers themselves. There is nothing healthy about this concentration of power. And it stands to reason that if the repertoire remains overwhelmingly dominated by male composers, their podium representatives will largely remain male as well. Adding to the headwinds, we were reminded that entrenched cultural norms die hard when the conductor Mariss Jansons, another towering figure in the field, recently stated in an interview that, while he was not against women on the podium in principle, female conductors are “not my cup of tea.” He later revised his opinion, but the damage was done. A revered maestro speaking in this way gives cover to just about everyone else.

Peering ahead toward 2018, the good news is there should be plenty to entice, including a production of “Threepenny Opera” from BLO, more Joan of Arc-themed selections from Odyssey Opera, and more Shostakovich from the BSO. One also hopes momentum builds in the field’s reckoning with these broader core issues — and now of all times, when it seems we need what music offers more urgently by the day.   

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at F
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