The BSO giving an American premiere is nothing new, but to mark the event in this generous way seemed something more. There are, in short, many styles with which great orchestras can present new music – it can be done with a tacit sense of apology to the large cohort of more conservative subscribers, as if to say, “we know that it’s a bitter pill to swallow, but bear with us, please wait and don’t worry, your virtuoso concerto and 19th century symphonic masterpiece is upon us. with an austere sense of duty to the future of the art form, as if to say “you may not like it and neither will we, but that too is part of our mission, and remember that even the music you love was once new.
Or finally, contemporary music can be programmed by traditional orchestras with no apologies, with a sense of celebration, as if to say: “those composers who live and write today stand at the top of the very mountain of tradition that you love, each in its own fascinating and distinct way. way, and as an institution dedicated to the entirety of this tradition, we consider them our heroes.
The last of these was essentially the message broadcast by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where Samuel spent the last 25 years of his career, and where his conductor sensibility was presumably formed. In Los Angeles, bringing composers alive from the cold was actually a key strategy that helped transform Disney Hall into a site of creative buzz, unpredictability and excitement – and one way this set earned its reputation as the the most vital and avant-garde orchestra in America.
The BSO of recent years certainly hasn’t left composers living in the cold, but its genuine love for all they represent often feels like it’s been left wintering somewhere in the Berkshires. . The Tanglewood Music Center, in other words, is an extraordinary place where every summer creativity is actively, not reluctantly, celebrated. Yet his ethos and energy often seem woefully underrepresented in the orchestra’s three-season home at Symphony Hall. That is why, when Thomas herself was so generously brought to the fore at the start of Thursday evening’s program, I wondered if we were in fact beginning to glimpse a shift in emphasis, the beginning of a new approach to new music that the BSO can, should, and, I would say, must embrace.
While we’re on this topic, and before we get into Thursday’s program, let’s step back to recognize a fundamental truth and a fundamental challenge that the Samuel-era BSO will face: how far the whole can- he develop artistically? to real estate. The sheer size of Symphony Hall – and the number of seats that, over the course of the subscription season, must be filled multiple times for each program – presents a crippling deterrent to creative risk-taking.
But there’s also brick-and-mortar hope in that direction, as the BSO owns the entire block that Symphony Hall resides on. Mark Volpe, Samuel’s predecessor, said the orchestra was already considering building new “spaces where you can do different kinds of programming.” It just has to happen. Creating a second, smaller hall in Boston, as other orchestras with much smaller endowments have done in their hometowns, would open up exciting possibilities for invigorating the institution as a whole, changing its artistic complexion, renewing its relevance and recharge its mission in a rapidly changing culture. It would also greatly expand the types of audiences the BSO can reach. Once the pressures of the pandemic begin to ease, creating this second space should become a top priority for management and the board. There may be no better way to preserve the future of the whole.
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After Thomas’ (hopefully) auspicious introduction, Thursday’s gig turned out to be a satisfying mix of old and new. The composer’s latest score, “Dance Foldings”, nimbly bridges the mythical art-science divide, drawing inspiration from the proteins of the human body. Thomas’ starting point, as she put it, was “metaphors, pairings, counterpoints, foldings, shapes and images inspired by the biological ‘ballet’ of proteins assembled and folded in our bodies.”
That certain essential proteins such as antibodies have been rather in the news lately, gives the score an extra-musical resonance. And thankfully, Thomas didn’t attempt a dryly literal performance of molecular ballet — no Pikachurin pirouette — but instead used the secret life of proteins to trigger his own abstract musical thinking. “Dance Foldings”, lasting 13 minutes, comes and goes like a single flash of light. It’s complex, layered but transparently transparent music, impeccably crafted and full of big band-style syncopations that drive it forward with unstoppable kinetic energy. Nelsons and the orchestra rose to their task, delivering a precise and utterly compelling narrative.
Thankfully, the sense of acute alertness that lifted Thomas’ performance didn’t wane for the rest of the evening. Jean-Yves Thibaudet’s recital of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 dazzles not only with virtuosity, but also with fantasy and poetry. The cello solos of BSO principal Blaise Déjardin were equally moody and characterful. And while the evening had opened with a strong case for presenting new music as if it were already a classic, Nelsons and the BSO ended the evening with a vibrant Beethoven Fourth, showing how these balletic proteins – in older music – can still dance and pulsate with streams of life.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Thursday evening (rebroadcast on January 15 and 16)
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.