classical music

Beginnings, endings in classical music, and a new BSO leader

Andris Nelsons (center) with the BSO’s board chairman Ted Kelly (left) and managing director Mark Volpe as Nelsons is introduced to BSO subscribers in June.
Bill Greene/globe staff
Andris Nelsons (center) with the BSO’s board chairman Ted Kelly (left) and managing director Mark Volpe as Nelsons is introduced to BSO subscribers in June.

This is the time of year when critics look back over a bewildering diversity of events and are asked to distill the trends, connect the dots, catch the patterns. Who’s up? Who’s down? How many high C’s? Was it a good year for classical music, a bad year for classical music?

The poet Stanley Kunitz once said, “the deepest thing I know is that I am living and dying at once, and my conviction is to report that self-dialogue.”

Music scenes, too, are always trending in both directions at once, depending on where you look, but this year the news felt particularly existential. New York City Opera shuttered after 70 years as one of the most important opera houses in America, a steady pipeline for emerging talent, and a stage that was willing to take artistic risks that its next-door neighbor, the Metropolitan Opera, would have never dreamed of. The company’s unraveling had been playing out in slow motion for years, but in October this national cultural institution conceded financial defeat, sending shudders through the classical music world and seemingly underscoring the fragility of all the values it represented.


Also this year, with the world looking on, the Minnesota Orchestra imploded after a rancorous dispute between management and players, coming to a head on the very same week that City Opera announced its closure. Minnesota’s transformative conductor, Osmo Vänskä, has now resigned, though the locked-out musicians will begin presenting their own concerts next year. The orchestra’s broader future is still unclear.

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In a welcome contrast, closer to home, there was finally some good news coming from Symphony Hall. After a protracted search that will have left the Boston Symphony Orchestra without a leader for three full seasons, the BSO finally announced in May that it was tapping the Latvian maestro Andris Nelsons as its next music director. Nelsons, who will be 35 when his tenure begins in the fall of 2014, will be the youngest conductor to hold the post in more than 100 years.

Nelsons doesn’t carry himself with the airs of a grand maestro, and he looked somewhat awestruck one month later when he greeted the audience of some 850 people packed into Symphony Hall to watch him sign his contract. This is the same musician who once snuck into his high school to practice trumpet through the night until his lips bled, in the desperate hope of winning a position in the brass section of an orchestra outside of Latvia. Looking out into the hall, he told the audience he was living inside of a dream.

Nelsons’s youth, his guilelessness and accessibility, may ultimately make Symphony Hall seem like a more inviting place for some listeners. Yet it might also lead others to underestimate his credentials, which in fact rival or surpass those of the other young maestros tapped to lead major American orchestras in recent years. Most of Nelsons’s experience has been in Europe, and I caught a glimpse of the rapport he has built with his current ensemble, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, when I heard three blazing performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony he led there in June. Each one was notably different but propelled by a certain restless energy and inner drive, a sense of immersive participation in the music-making around him. Whether Nelsons will turn out to be the galvanizing cultural leader Boston needs of course remains to be seen, but there’s good reason to be optimistic for this next chapter at the BSO. In his concerts with the orchestra this fall, the players sounded invested and ready to follow him wherever he leads.

This was also the great Year of Anniversaries, when the Verdi and Wagner bicentenaries sent waves of their music across the land. Staged performances of Wagner in Boston are still rare, given the city’s rather stunning lack of a dedicated opera house. So when Boston Lyric Opera brought “The Flying Dutchman” to the Shubert Theatre, the city’s first staged Wagner in more two decades, there was a sense of occasion.


But by and large, the reputations of Verdi and Wagner need no special pleading. The other major anniversary this year — the Britten centenary — will prove to have been the most impactful of all three, given the attention it has brought to so many known and unknown Britten scores. My most rewarding Britten centenary moment came watching “Peter Grimes” play out at dusk across the shingle beach in the village of Aldeburgh, where Britten, his fame already ascendant, once took walks every morning, swam in the rough waters, and bought his herring for breakfast. Indeed, this composer’s best works glide across a field of tensions — between the local and the cosmopolitan, tradition and innovation, public ritual and occluded private depths — making his art the kind of unstable compound that speaks potently today.

My own personal list of memorable events accompanies this article; every listener has his or her own. It was an eventful year in local music news, too. Odyssey Opera made an auspicious company debut, bringing hope to former fans of Opera Boston, though its future plans remain largely a mystery. Boston Early Music Festival pulled off another impressive marathon that included Handel’s very first opera, “Almira.”

John Harbison’s “Great Gatsby” finally made it to Boston, Tod Machover wrote a symphony with the entire city of Toronto, and Benjamin Zander fruitfully rethought Beethoven’s Ninth. New England Conservatory announced there would be no more new Sistema Fellows, a very disappointing turn, though it will continue working with the educators it has launched over the first the five years of this essential fellowship. James Levine made a triumphant return to the Met podium. Among those who passed away this year were Sir Colin Davis, Van Cliburn, and Henri Dutilleux, as well as two leading lights among the city’s string players, violinist Masuko Ushioda and violist Mary Ruth Ray.

Some Bostonians will remember this as the year of pianos on the streets, thanks to the Celebrity Series project “Play Me, I’m Yours.” I loved seeing crowds gathered around these impromptu sidewalk parlors. You could also appreciate the way the project tweaked the whole notion of a performance hierarchy. One night, after a big-ticket event in Symphony Hall, I caught a few phrases from a sidewalk improviser, tucked away at a piano in the shadows of the historic building. He was playing something quiet and soulful, and the music seemed to drift out over the empty sidewalks and the desolate street, and up the walls of the buildings on Huntington Avenue. I could tell you which of that night’s two performances linger more vividly in memory. But I think I already did.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at