The Boston Symphony In Trouble

[Above: Boston’s Symphony Hall, built by Henry Higginson and opened in 1900.]

Last week I heard the Boston Symphony perform Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth at Carnegie Hall. The conductor was their music director since 2014: Andris Nelsons. I had planned to write a blog but instead emailed my impressions to a dozen friends in the music business. The emails that came back – some from people long familiar with the BSO or Nelsons or both – more than suggested that this is an orchestra in trouble. So I’ve decided to turn my private email into a public blog. I’m willing to risk seeming presumptuous and gratuitous. I have a constructive agenda.

My wife Agnes and I left at intermission. We were climbing the walls.

We were seated opposite the first violins, about 15 rows back. I would not even call this section a section. It was an eclectic group of violinists, disengaged to varying degrees. At the rear were two ladies who liked to chat. They did so in between scenes. At times they barely moved their bows. At the end of the first half, when the orchestra rose to bow, it took them a long time to leave their seats and they did so chatting.

The conductor is a mystery to me. When he asked his violins for a big response, the reaction was sluggish. I see that he conducts in Leipzig, Vienna, Berlin, that his Shostakovich CDs win awards. I encountered him once before, leading Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame at the Met. I was with a distinguished pianist; we both found it slack. 

My first experience of this opera was at the City Opera back when it performed at City Center. I was in high school. The conductor was Julius Rudel. The orchestral interludes raised the roof. The show was hot and fierce.

A year ago, I participated in a memorable Shostakovich 7 in South Dakota – I write about it often. Some time afterward, I spot-checked a few recorded performances of the sould-stirring ending of that symphony. The Nelsons/BSO version compared unfavorably, I thought, with Delta David Gier/South Dakota Symphony. In fact, the same South Dakota performance included, on the first half, one of those Lady Macbeth interludes – wittier than Nelsons’ BSO rendition.

The BSO’s Lady Macbeth was sung in Russian by a non-Russian cast — my wife, fluent in Russian, was unimpressed. They next record it for DG.

The house was practically full and everyone seemed prepared to enjoy the second half.

The BSO has a new executive director: Chad Smith, coming over from LA. He will make a difference. Already, he’s announced the creation of a humanities arm – something the LA Phil has, something every major American orchestra needs. And he’s increased the presence of his music director at Tanglewood – in principle, the right move. 

I imagine that he will rethink the programing. What will happen with the humanities component remains to be seen. In LA, so far as I can tell, it emphasizes the contemporary arts. Nothing wrong with that. But it bears reckoning that Boston is not LA – no other American musical institution had nearly so impressive a beginning. The orchestra’s inventor, owner, and operator, in 1881, was Henry Higginson, a visionary genius insufficiently recalled and not least by the BSO itself. The conductors of those early seasons included Arthur Nikisch – later the pre-eminent symphonic conductor in Germany. Nikisch’s 400 BSO concerts are today wholly unremembered. At the time, their impact was cataclysmic. This is a story that bears retelling. 

The orchestra’s most impactful music director was Serge Koussevitzky (1924–1949); it is he who created the Tanglewood Festival as an American music laboratory. Koussevitzky was a man who thought nothing of telling Bela Bartok, terminally ill in a New York hospital bed, that we was to compose a major work for the Boston Symphony. The result was the Concerto for Orchestra, which Koussevitzky premiered in 1944. A few weeks later, he scheduled further performances of the same music so it could be nationally broadcast. That radio performance (Dec. 30, 1944) remains the most vivid, most virtuosic version I have ever heard (or will ever hear); the galvanizing string choir is a Koussevitzky signature.

Koussevitzky’s many causes included pieces by his countryman Igor Stravinsky then little played by others in the US. It was also in Boston that Stravinsky delivered his seminal Norton lectures at Harvard University. This is a story that the BSO and Harvard could remember together. 

We are today witnessing an ever riper crisis in the American symphonic community. Our orchestras, once civic bastions, need to figure out what they’re for. In my experience, the South Dakota Symphony is one orchestra ahead of the pack. Its example should be studied. (For my 7,000 word American Scholar manifesto on “Shostakovich and South Dakota,” click here.)

The larger crisis is an erasure of the arts from the American experience. The crucial loss is of cultural memory. We live in the present moment. Our attention spans are short. But the arts, historically, build on past achievement. History, lineage, tradition: ballast. 

I cannot think of an American cultural institution with a more glorious history than  the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

To hear a “More than Music” NPR feature on the South Dakota Symphony, with live excerpts from Lady Macbeth (at 29:56) and (at 00:10 and 8:45) Shostakovich’s Seventh, click here.

For a long look at Henry Higginson, see my Moral Fire: Musical Portraits from America’s Fin-de-Siecle (2012) [with a jacket blurb from former BSO CEO Mark Volpe].

For much more on Nikisch and Koussevitzky in Boston, see my Classical Music in AmericaA History of its Rise and Fall (2005)


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