The Year in Arts | Classical Music

Sounds aplenty, and a partnership taking root

In his first full year, Andris Nelsons established himself as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Chris Lee/file 2014
In his first full year, Andris Nelsons established himself as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Every year, the city’s classical music world seems to offer a kind of infinite playlist. The essence of 2015 depended of course on where you looked, and where you listened.

Most of the institutional news could be filed under the category of leaders settling in, or institutions breaking out. At the Boston Symphony, this was the year when the orchestra’s new partnership with music director Andris Nelsons finally took root. The year began with Nelsons, still a newcomer, being introduced with a hologram. Twelve months later, the hologram is gone, replaced by a more essential link to the orchestra and its community. This is now Nelsons’s BSO.

The path to that connection was forged through dozens of warmly received Nelsons-led performances and an impressive series of firsts: the first multi-year recording project with a major label in over two decades; the excellent first release in that project; the first international tour under Nelsons; and the conductor’s first contract extension (until at least 2022). When you add it all up, metaphors of an institution snapping to life do not seem wholly out of place. Well-informed listeners may differ on the success of particular Nelsons interpretations, but I’ve heard little disagreement about how devotedly — and finely — the orchestra, week by week, has been playing for its new leader. It’s the sound of an ensemble believing in its future.


However, this year also brought another more complicated first: a new podium for Nelsons. In September, he was named as the next music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, a second major post he will assume in the fall of 2017, concurrent with his Boston responsibilities.

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Many top-tier conductors hold a second post, but few have two jobs as big and demanding as the pair that Nelsons now has cued up. Only time will tell how this plays out. Nelsons is already one of the busiest conductors in the business; much in this next chapter will depend on how fully he cuts back on other guest appearances. Needless to say, the BSO deserves the best of its leader, and the city will be watching closely when he starts up in Leipzig.

Meanwhile, I hope he continues to embolden his vision at the BSO, while at the same time I already appreciate the new vitality he has brought. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen so much positive energy radiating from Symphony Hall.

In other BSO news, this year saw a final bow for John Oliver, the widely admired founding director of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Oliver built up this remarkable volunteer ensemble from scratch, prepared it impeccably for countless performances at home and abroad, and earned the lasting gratitude and respect of his singers and the community as a whole. As one could immediately sense in the warm send-off he received at Tanglewood, his legacy is assured.

While the orchestra settled into its new chapter, other institutions took big forward leaps in 2015. The Boston Early Music Festival broke new ground by winning its first Grammy and mounting all three of Monteverdi’s extant operas in a magnificent edition of its biennial festival this June. Having the full trio of operas gave the festival a special coherence. Overall, this was a triumphant year for BEMF, one that should further raise its national and international profile.


Boston Lyric Opera, meanwhile, arrived at a moment of existential reckoning this fall, and finally chose to leave its opera-challenged home at the Shubert Theatre. This was a bold yet necessary move led by the company’s general and artistic director, Esther Nelson. It a decision to be applauded, and a hopeful sign for BLO’s artistic future.

The company’s departure from the Shubert may also be just what the City of Boston and the region’s opera supporters need to galvanize momentum toward finding — or building — a more suitable home for this art form. Indeed, with the BLO’s exit from the Shubert, any remaining blinders should by now finally be off. Let’s be clear about it one more time: It is an abiding absurdity that a city of Boston’s size and cultural excellence does not have a proper opera house. At this point, there is no other path forward.

But the year in local music obviously cannot be summed up through institutional news alone. Classical losses in 2015 included the city’s own musical luminary-in-chief, Gunther Schuller, who accomplished enough in his 89 years to fill many lifetimes. Also this year among the musical ranks of what Yehuda Amichai once called “life’s graduation class” were the conductor Kurt Masur, the composer Ezra Sims, and two legends of BSO eras past: former concertmaster Joseph Silverstein and former principal timpanist Everett “Vic” Firth.

A list of my memorable moments from 2015 accompanies this article, and as always reflects just one critic’s travels. This year my list includes a wonderfully ambitious festival of British stage works from Odyssey Opera; an exhilarating afternoon of Wagner from the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra; and a journey at the Gardner Museum into the landscape of late Feldman, with its pristine vistas of horological liberation and disorienting beauty. I also spent a memorably interstellar night in Somerville with Sound Icon playing a percussion work by Gérard Grisey that was punctuated by the chatter of actual pulsars. Who knew that the stars had a metronome all their own?

Of course, a year is in some ways a rather un-musical unit, as many of us cherish this art precisely for how it loosens time, collapses years, and emboldens a sense of freedom from the daily calendar. “Music,” the pianist Russell Sherman has remarked, “is a cake that grows as you eat it.” This city is extremely fortunate to have such a rich diversity of sonic choices, from the center to the fringes. All you need to do is grab a fork. And dig in.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at