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Looking for boldness in a new era at the BSO

Andris Nelsons takes the reins as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra next fall.Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff/Globe Staff

On a recent night in Symphony Hall, during the smoldering final pages of Strauss’s “Salome,” as a young German soprano was addressing her ecstatic cries to the severed head of John the Baptist, I found my ears drawn back repeatedly to the sound of the orchestra itself.

The strings were giving off a kind of radiant heat, the brass playing had a sculpted glow, and the woodwinds at center stage, tasked with realizing Strauss’s signature washes of color, were wafting up bands of iridescence. The orchestra, in short, sounded alert and vital. And the roar of approval that greeted the final chords was a noise not heard at Symphony Hall in a long time.


On the podium was the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s man of the hour, the Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons, who is poised to take the reins of the city’s venerable ensemble next fall. His arrival has long seemed lodged in a hopeful yet distant future, but this month the Nelsons era took a big step closer, as the conductor announced his first year of programs.

This is an exciting and crucial moment for the BSO, which has been playing a Godot-like waiting game for three seasons without a music director. Next year, Nelsons will conduct works at the center of the repertoire, alongside some premieres and newer music and a few pieces long absent from Symphony Hall. The BSO will also return to international touring under its music director, and there are said to be plans afoot for new recordings.

But the new season announcement, even as it fills in many scheduling details, also raises a host of bigger questions. Some music directors bring transformational change to their institutions, while others carry forward the status quo with a new complexion. Which type will Nelsons ultimately be? Will his stamp on Symphony Hall be palpable only during the 10 programs — out of 26 next season — when he is present on the podium, or can he drive a deeper evolution at the BSO, one that leverages the momentum and energy generated by the arrival of this young star? Is traditional programming, even when executed with great virtuosity, enough for a symphony orchestra to thrive in today’s fractured culture? And more broadly still, will the BSO lead or follow other American ensembles in grappling with the larger question of what it means to be an orchestra in the 21st century?


Nelsons, 35, will surely need some time to grow into his new post. He currently leads the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble much smaller than the BSO. And all big American orchestras place singular demands on their music directors, requiring a kind of dance among the board, donors, management, players, and the public that makes these posts more complex and multifaceted than similar positions in Europe.

As Nelsons gets his bearings here, he will be leading programs well-stocked with staples such as Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique,” Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, Strauss’s tone poems, and (this summer at Tanglewood) Ravel’s “Bolero,” Brahms’s Third Symphony, and Beethoven’s Fifth.

Critics love to prod orchestras for relying too heavily on warhorses like these, or for programming them without a thoughtfully conceived context that allows us to hear the music afresh. But it’s also clear that for Nelsons, a great fire still burns in the heart of this repertoire. For him, it seems, an account of Beethoven’s Fifth needs no clever reframing to make it a genuine event; it needs only an inspired performance. And from what he has already demonstrated, Nelsons has it in his power to give one.


But will these galvanizing nights under his baton be enough, on their own terms, to bring the orchestra where it needs to go? Nelsons speaks earnestly about his desire to expand what he calls the family of the orchestra, the number of people in Boston and beyond who feel invested in what happens at Symphony Hall. Yet for this to be a truly transformational tenure, he must do so not only through compelling performances but by renewing the mission of the orchestra itself.

Looking around the country, one finds ensembles that have flourished by broadening what they do beyond the standard week-by-week pipeline of subscription performances. They are writing new scripts, charting new itineraries for the annual journey from September to May, stepping out on occasion from their velvet-appointed concert halls into sharper urban spaces, and finding new models for outreach and education. And most crucially, they are celebrating — rather than dutifully upholding — the dual agenda of the modern symphony orchestra: to deliver superb performances of the great masterpieces of the past, of course, but also to serve as dynamic laboratories of the new, destinations for a curious public to encounter cutting-edge, first-degree, generative art.

One way that many orchestras have projected a commitment to this dual mission is by ushering composers and performers onto their own artistic leadership teams. In 2009, for instance, when the Los Angeles Philharmonic named the 28-year-old Gustavo Dudamel as music director, it also made a second key appointment. Knowing that Dudamel was passionate about the grand tradition but less practiced in shaping the new music profile of a major US orchestra, the LA Phil gave him a colleague: The American composer John Adams was named to a post called “creative chair.” Adams’s role has been to advise Dudamel, occasionally to conduct, and more broadly, to tend to the LA Phil’s modern wing. Orchestras of Chicago, New York, and Cleveland also have composers-in-residence. The BSO has none.


Nelsons could at once project a powerful symbolic message, set himself up with new perspectives and potentially invaluable counsel, and generate large amounts of good will in certain quarters by creating a new composer-in-residence position at the BSO. And this should be part of a broader reconsideration of how the orchestra handles new music.

Part of the challenge is a structural one. At present, the orchestra’s two agendas must jostle within the slender frame of the subscription series, because the BSO has left itself no other forums for in-town exploratory programming. But too often this very jostling brings its own stultifying dynamic. On one side, ambitious risk-taking is discouraged because of the huge numbers of seats that must be sold for any subscription program. On the other, resentment simmers from some subscribers who come to regard contemporary music as the spinach of their diets, reluctantly consumed in the name of some abstract goal of health.


But there are other options, ways that the orchestra can celebrate music’s modern edge for those who genuinely want to join the party. Now is the time for the BSO to finally establish its own new music series in Boston. The orchestra is rightly proud of its training academy at Tanglewood, one that is known for its contemporary music concerts (performed typically without the involvement of BSO players). But the essential work of the Tanglewood Music Center should not serve as a kind of institutional alibi for the absence of stronger and more diverse new-music offerings at home.

Andris Nelsons conducts a March 6 concert performance of “Salome” at Symphony Hall with the BSO and soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin. Stu Rosner

Other orchestras around the country have such programs in place, and their numbers just keep growing. Next season, the San Francisco Symphony will open an alternative concert space called Sound Box, designed to serve as a casual, intimate, high-tech home for its new music programming, with a series of late-night events that will draw participation from music director Michael Tilson Thomas, SFS musicians, and local composers. Even certain guest conductors will appear after their mainstage performances with the orchestra.

Meanwhile, this May, the New York Philharmonic will convene the first NY Phil Biennial, a festival inspired by the art world’s Venice Biennale. Nearly a dozen musical organizations will come together for this 11-day event, with works by more than 50 composers from 12 countries being played at venues across the city. Will the audiences for these events be the same as those that show up for the Philharmonic’s cycle of Beethoven piano concertos? I would guess not. And that’s precisely the point. As Nelsons might put it, the family is expanding. And for once the classical music world may not feel light years away from the world of visual arts, where interest in the new is keen.

The challenge for the BSO is not to emulate other orchestras but to reflect the full sophistication and vibrancy of Boston itself. In addition to recasting its approach to new music, the BSO could be curating mid-season mini-festivals that bring subscribers deeper inside a rarely heard body of work; establishing new residencies for individual soloists; and developing artistic projects driven by substantive collaborations with local institutions such as MIT’s Media Lab, the Museum of Fine Arts, or any one of the city’s world-class universities. There could be new ventures to capture the singular student energies of Boston, and to better support the progressive music education initiatives already underway all across town. Opera in concert under Nelsons’s baton should also be a fixture of every season. None of these would threaten the traditional side of the BSO’s mission. But they would bring new oxygen, open up and modernize the feel of Symphony Hall, and help the orchestra become more things to more people.

Thankfully, as he proved again last week, Nelsons knows how to deliver the kind of electric performances that will surely, on their own terms, raise the orchestra’s profile at home and abroad. But let’s enjoy the excitement generated by the BSO’s next music director without letting it mask the deeper imperative for forward motion. Nelsons would best serve his new orchestra by thinking boldly beyond the podium, and, critically, the BSO administration must give him the freedom and support to grow his vision. His arrival should not be where this crucial stage of the orchestra’s evolution ends. But where it begins.

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