The introductions are over. This is now Andris Nelsons’s Boston Symphony Orchestra. And the itinerary is getting more ambitious.
Over the next year and a half, Nelsons will lead the BSO in a major recording project with one of the classical music world’s most distinguished labels, launch two tours to Europe, and bring local audiences an expansive and more personalized 2015-16 season that includes a bracing opera in concert and diverse works by living composers alongside the traditional diet of repertory staples. It’s a hopeful sign, suggesting that the renewed energy the young Latvian conductor has brought this august but long-leaderless ensemble can be extended into the future.
It’s also an indication that under Nelsons, the BSO is preparing to ramp up its international profile in a big way.
For the first time in more than two decades, the orchestra is embarking on a multi-year recording project with a major classical label. Deutsche Grammophon will release a series of five CDs capturing live BSO performances of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphonies Nos. 5-10 under Nelsons’s baton. It is the first installment of what the orchestra and label hope can become a full survey of Shostakovich’s 15 symphonies. If the project reaches this goal, it will constitute the first complete Shostakovich cycle in Deutsche Grammophon’s prestigious catalog.
“It’s very, very special, for me and for us,” Nelsons said this week by phone between rehearsals. “Shostakovich is one of the biggest giants in the history of music, without whom I couldn’t imagine classical music at all.”
The potent symphonies of Shostakovich (1906-75) bear a freighted and still-contested relationship to the politics of the Soviet Union, and to the composer’s own harrowing personal experiences creating art under the watchful eye of party dictators and commissars. Nelsons, 36, was born after the composer’s death, but grew up in Riga and studied in St. Petersburg. In this regard, he is one of the last conductors to have received formative aspects of his musical education under the Soviet system.
He is also the first BSO music director since Serge Koussevitzky to have hailed from that region. “I really love this music,” Nelsons said, discussing the cycle of symphonies, “and feel somehow very connected to it.”
Once upon a time, news of collaborations between big symphony orchestras and classical labels was hardly news at all. But trends in the recording industry have made such projects increasingly rare. The BSO has not embarked on a multi-year recording project with a major label since its Mahler cycle for Philips in the 1980s.
That it is doing so once more also speaks to Nelsons’s stature in Europe, where he has until now built his career. Reached by phone in France, one Deutsche Grammophon executive sounded an unequivocal note.
“For me personally, and for all my colleagues, it’s a dream come true,” said Ute Fesquet, vice president of the label’s artists and repertoire division. “It’s not easy to find a financial and an artistic setup that justifies this kind of project, but I think this one is so natural and clear in so many ways.”
According to Fesquet, the label hopes to have the first release — devoted to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 and music from his opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” works being performed today and tomorrow night in Symphony Hall — ready for the orchestra’s late-summer tour to Berlin and Cologne, London, Paris, Lucerne, Switzerland, and three other European cities. This year’s tour, the BSO’s first visit to Europe in nearly a decade, will be followed next season by another newly announced tour to Germany, Austria, and Luxembourg. Orchestra officials say they expect this to be the new pattern during Nelsons’s tenure, with one major tour per season.
Meanwhile, Nelsons’s own international conducting schedule is simplifying. While he will continue to guest conduct a host of European ensembles, the new season will be his first in Boston without a second orchestra under his watch, as he wraps up his tenure with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in June. Partly as a result, his presence in Boston will grow to 13 programs, up from 10 in the current season.
Notable guest conductors next season will include Vladimir Jurowski, Bernard Haitink, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Charles Dutoit, and Jiri Belohlavek. Looking even further ahead to future seasons — and with an openness that is rare in a world where artistic planning is often treated as a closely guarded secret — Nelsons stated this week that he has extended guest conducting invitations to a handful of eminent figures not heard locally in years, including his own mentors Mariss Jansons and Simon Rattle as well as Antonio Pappano and Christian Thielemann (who has never conducted the BSO).
“We’ve already approached them, and hope they can come,” he said. “This is very important, because we have to be sure that the Boston audience can have a chance to enjoy their great mastery.”
‘It’s very, very special, for me and for us. Shostakovich is one of the biggest giants in the history of music, without whom I couldn’t imagine classical music at all.’
In another welcome development, next season will offer a swath of both standard repertoire and new music curated along thematic lines, by linking a series of concerts and related events to the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Works present on that series will include standard repertoire by Mendelssohn, Weber, Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, as well as more rarely spotted works such as Strauss’s “Macbeth” and an overdue return to the BSO-commissioned Eighth Symphony by Hans Werner Henze, inspired by “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
As part of what amounts to a three-week Shakespeare and music mini-festival in all but name, the BSO will also perform two new works. The first, “let me tell you,” by Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen, includes texts derived from “Hamlet” and features Canadian soprano Barbara Hannigan. It will be followed by the premiere of a new BSO commission by George Tsontakis titled “Sonnets,” written for Robert Sheena, the orchestra’s English horn player.
Further new music cued up across the span of next season includes works by Sebastian Currier, Giya Kancheli, Unsuk Chin, Jennifer Higdon, John Williams, and Jean-Frederic Neuburger. Henri Dutilleux, the late French composer, will be the subject of a centenary tribute. It’s an eclectic mix, though regrettably absent are works by Boston composers, who as a group were given a relatively prominent place in Nelsons’s first-year offerings.
The wait for more Nelsons-led opera in concert will also end: Given the conductor’s grasp of Strauss’s idiom, as already witnessed in his “Salome” performances last year, two local performances of “Elektra” with soprano Christine Goerke in the title role promise to be a keystone event. Factor in repertoire staples, appealing guest soloists, and notable debuts, and on paper, at least, it adds up to what should be a compelling season, one with more clearly articulated projects and more thoughtful through-lines than we’ve seen in Nelsons’s tenure thus far.
The stakes are also rising, as audiences far beyond Boston will now be listening to see how the BSO’s young and still-evolving maestro delivers on next season’s promise. Closer to home, Nelsons seems to have already earned the good will of local audiences, and their interest in following his own interests. He has quickened this institution’s pulse. Let’s hope a strong second season encourages him to only continue expanding his artistic ambitions, and deepening his vision from here.Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeremy_Eichler.