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THIRD EAR | JEREMY EICHLER

With ‘Leipzig Week in Boston,’ BSO rolls out new orchestral alliance

BSO Archives

The second Leipzig Gewandhaus opened in 1884 and was destroyed during World War II.

By  Globe Staff 

On the evening of Feb. 22, Andris Nelsons will give the downbeat on his tenure as music director of the storied Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. The following day he will participate in a civic inauguration ceremony at Leipzig’s Old City Hall. One imagines him placing his hand on a bible owned by Bach.

These days it’s not unusual for star conductors to occupy the podiums of two different orchestras. What makes the Nelsons-Boston-Leipzig configuration unique is that the two ensembles have decided to do more than just grin and bear the reality of sharing their boss. They are trying a rather bold experiment by building something unique: a trans-Atlantic orchestral alliance that will place these two historic institutions in a new 21st-century dialogue.

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In practical terms, this will mean regular touring visits to each other’s halls and also shared new commissions, player exchanges, and new opportunities for the students at the Tanglewood Music Center and the Gewandhaus’s Mendelssohn Academy. But rather intriguingly, the new alliance will include a public-facing educational dimension, with each season featuring a “Leipzig Week in Boston” and a “Boston Week in Leipzig.”

The former took place this week, beginning on Monday night with a gala at the Boston Public Library to mark the formal launch of the alliance. It continued on Tuesday and Wednesday with talks on Leipzig’s history alongside handsomely dark-hued performances by the Gewandhaus-Quartett. And it was set to culminate on Thursday night with the first of three Symphony Hall performance featuring the premiere of a joint commission by Sean Shepherd as well as iconic Gewandhaus-linked works by Bach and Mendelssohn.

Before this week, it was hard to know how the new partnership would take shape, and a skeptical observer might have been forgiven for wondering whether the entire enterprise was driven primarily by marketing concerns. Happily, the kick-off events pointed toward a different reality.

For starters, it was a wise move to have enlisted the distinguished Bach scholar and Harvard professor Christoph Wolff as this partnership’s official artistic adviser. The Leipzig Week programs I attended were substantive and helpful in offering a new perspective for BSO audiences not only onto the history of the world’s oldest civic orchestra, but also onto the BSO itself.

That’s in part because, while the new alliance became official just this week, you might say it began in 1881 with the founding of the BSO by Henry Lee Higginson.

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Many of the early BSO conductors and orchestral players had Leipzig links, beginning with Wilhelm Gericke and Arthur Nikisch and continuing up through Charles Munch. When the present-day Symphony Hall was built under Higginson’s watchful eye, it was modeled in part on the so-called Second Gewandhaus, the Leipzig orchestra’s hall that opened in 1884 and was destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II.

But Leipzig’s legacy in Boston runs far deeper than just architecture and personnel. The week’s most interesting theme was the extent to which the Leipzig Gewandhaus was where the dominant ethos of classical music itself came into being. It was in Leipzig that the art form first took the shape that most people — to the chagrin of the field’s more progressive voices — still associate it with today: classical music as the reverential performance of the great masterworks of the past.

In 1835, when Felix Mendelssohn took over the Gewandhaus Orchestra as its conductor (or Kapellmeister in local parlance), the music of the past was not worshipped but eyed with suspicion. Classical music was contemporary music. But not long after Mendelssohn began experimenting by including on his concerts some works of Bach, a new spirit of historicism quickly claimed the upper hand. By the end of the 19th century, the situation had been inverted: tradition held the high ground and contemporary works had to fight their way onto programs. In other words, the dynamic we still have today.

As the repertoire shifted, so did the notion of how to receive it. Images projected at Tuesday night’s lecture showed the interior of the first Gewandhaus hall, in use from 1781 to 1885. The seats allowed the audience to face each other. The space was social and convivial. Lest decorum slip too far, a motto by the Roman philosopher Seneca emblazed above the stage offered a gentle reminder: Res severa est verum gaudium — “true joy is a serious matter.”

The Leipzigers brought the motto with them when they built the Second Gewandhaus, but in their new hall the words seemed to point toward something more severe. Suddenly an organ adorned the back of the stage, an emblem of liturgical music. The new religion of art needed its own space for worship, and an air of church-like silence became the new norm. Visiting composers marveled at how the Leipzig audiences fell silent even before the conductor took the stage. And as Wolff pointed out, composers such as Schumann and Brahms quickly rose to the occasion, composing new symphonies that exuded their own air of religiosity.

Of course Leipzig was not an island; similar developments could be seen in musical centers across German-speaking Europe. But Leipzig was the leader. So it is not an exaggeration to say that the BSO was created to perform a specific repertoire, and to embody a specific performance culture of classical music, both of which were first invented in Leipzig.

It seemed auspicious that this opening Leipzig Week in Boston brought an occasion for BSO audiences to explore all of these themes, and to place some flesh-and-blood history around classical music rituals often perceived as timeless. And it will be fascinating to see where the alliance programming goes in future years, especially as the discussions move beyond the Gewandhaus Orchestra’s vaunted 19th-century history and into the more complicated 20th. A fuller telling of the orchestra’s Mendelssohnian narrative would of course include the night of November 9, 1936, when the large statue of the composer that stood in front of the Second Gewandhaus was removed and destroyed under cover of darkness. Mendelssohn was of Jewish descent.

The historian Jeffrey Herf has written about the “divided memory” in the two Germanies after World War II. While West Germany under democratic rule embarked on a long if fitful process of reckoning with the past, East Germany found itself under a new dictatorship yoked to the Soviet anti-fascist victors. There was no parallel process of working through the past. In Leipzig, a new statue of Karl Marx loomed over the very plaza where the one of Mendelssohn once stood.

Partly as a result of these geopolitics of memory, the Gewandhaus Orchestra’s own history during the Third Reich has not been as widely explored as one might think. “The reckoning that you find in the discussions of the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic has not really taken place in Leipzig or in Dresden,” Wolff told me. “And of course, you can’t talk about the Nazi period without also talking about the Communist period.”

There are signs, however, that the equation may be shifting. A new two-volume history of the Gewandhaus being written by its archivist, Claudius Böhm, is due out later this year, on the occasion of the 275th anniversary of the orchestra’s founding. And after a long period of isolation behind the Iron Curtain, today’s Gewandhaus Orchestra has a more international complexion. “We are a young orchestra,” Andreas Schulz, its general director, told me in an interview. The players hail from 19 countries, and many are under 45.

One thing that has not changed is how deeply rooted the ensemble is in the collective self-image of the city as a whole. The way Boston loves its sports teams, Leipzig loves its music. The municipality provides roughly 45 percent of the orchestra’s annual budget. And the citizen’s enthusiasm seems commensurate. Last June a pair of open-air concerts in Leipzig’s city center attracted a combined audience of 65,000 people. Clearly, Boston could stand to learn a few things.

Given all these threads, it will be interesting to watch the alliance programming develop in the coming years. For now its own leaders appear committed to building momentum. “This is not a marketing gambit,” said Schulz, “We really have an authentic shared history. It started in 1881 and stopped with Charles Munch. Now we are starting it anew.”

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