By GALEN CHUANG ’17
Assistant Arts Editor
The Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) announced its 2014-2015 season on March 6. Founded in 1881, the BSO is one of the country’s oldest and most established orchestras. It is considered one of the “Big Five” orchestras in America, though this absolute categorization is now questionable with the rise of many younger, first-rate classical music ensembles in the United States.
The BSO had been without strong artistic leadership since the previous music director, James Levine, resigned September 2011 due to health problems. The purpose of an orchestra’s music director is to not only lead the ensemble in subscription concerts, but also to program the music selection and guest artists in the entire season. Because this vital position was not filled, the BSO has not recently had an artistically unified concert series. In June 2013, the orchestra announced Latvian-born Andris Nelsons as its new music director. The 36-year-old conductor previously served as music director of England’s City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and as the principal conductor of Riga’s Latvian National Opera. Nelsons’ BSO appointment is an opportunity to give direction to the artistically static—but still musically excellent—orchestra.
Of all American orchestras, the BSO is considered to have the most prevalent roots in Germanic tradition, meaning that the orchestra frequently performs German music from the Classical and Romantic periods of classical music. Unfortunately, this style of music seems to overshadow others in the typical BSO year. In the past, German composers such as Johannes Brahms, Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss have been featured more heavily than classical or contemporary composers of different nationalities. The new season is slightly more varied: From Sept. 2014 to May 2015, the BSO will play more Russian and French music in addition to plenty of Brahms, Wagner and Strauss.
The opening concert will feature soprano Kristine Opolais and tenor Jonas Kaufmann in excerpts from operas by Wagner and Giacomo Puccini. Other highlights of the season include music by Slavic composers Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Sergei Prokofiev and Igor Stravinsky; Scandinavian composers Jean Sibelius and Carl Nielsen; and French composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Guest artists include violinists Christian Tetzlaff, Leonidas Kavakos and Julia Fischer; pianists Emanuel Ax and Jean-Yves Thibaudet; cellists Yo-Yo Ma, Gautier Capuçon and Johannes Moser; and conductors Christoph von Dohnányi, Charles Dutoit and the BSO’s conductor emeritus Bernard Haitink.
There is a disappointing lack of contemporary music—roughly post-1945 classical music—in the new season, perhaps due to the conservative tastes of the relatively aged Boston audience. Many of Nelsons’ programming choices are generally safe and familiar crowd-pleasers and reflect his self-proclaimed Germanic influences. The exceptions, such as two world premieres and five pieces by living composers, are small steps in the right direction. However, in comparison to other top orchestras in the country, such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic and New York Philharmonic, the BSO is far behind in terms of pushing programming boundaries and exploring new music.
In times of such financial hardship for orchestras throughout the world, the BSO is fortunate to be financially robust. The orchestra has generous discount programs targeted at younger audiences. These include the College Card program, which allows college students to attend most concerts in the season for a one-time $25 fee, and the “20 Under 40” program, which offers $20 tickets to patrons under 40 years of age. According to the most recent annual report, the orchestra ended the 2011-2012 fiscal year without deficit. This is an impressive feat when some orchestras are reporting millions of dollars in losses each year. A large percentage of BSO’s revenue, however, comes from wealthy, older patrons with more traditional tastes. Despite the fact that a push for more modern programming would be risky to BSO’s financial stability, it is still a direction Nelsons and the BSO must pursue if it expects to exist as one of America’s top orchestras.