As Ryan Turner began his second season as Music Director of Emmanuel Music so ambitiously with Bach’s B Minor Mass, it seems a good time to reflect on this small, but extremely productive organization and its place in the Boston musical world. One of the most characteristic—and felicitous—aspects of classical music in Boston is the proliferation of these groups, often founded around a chorus, but featuring non-choral music as well, often cultivating a speciality in Baroque music, and often combining this with the music of Classical, Romantic, and contemporary composers. Boston is home to other groups that play Baroque music on period instruments, and some of these have achieved international reputations. At Emmanuel music of the eighteenth century and earlier is played on modern instruments in a style which conforms more or less with the performance practices developed in the postwar years by Günther Ramin and Kurt Thomas with the Thomanerchor at Leipzig, and extending to Fritz Lehmann and Karl Richter in Berlin and Munich—with roots in the reformed performances of the 1920s. This doesn’t mean that these musicians don’t listen to their historically informed colleagues. In Boston, it is pretty well impossible for them not to exchange ideas and to learn from one another. As compelling as period performances of Baroque masters are, there is one great virtue to modern instruments: the music can be performed as part of a tradition extending up to the present day. The musicians can perform Bach seamlessly amidst Brahms, Bruckner, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Vaughn Williams, or, say, John Harbison, Principal Guest Conductor at Emmanuel Music, who wrote an enlightening personal note on the B Minor Mass for this performance.
In recent weeks the Boston Symphony Orchestra has celebrated the 200th anniversary of Robert Schumann’s birth with performances of the four Symphonies and the Piano Concerto, with mixed, eventually quite good, results.
This summer’s Festival of Contemporary Music is so different from its predecessors that it really ought to be given a different title. In fact, “contemporary” music, in the sense of brand new works by up-and-coming young composers, will be conspicuously absent. Perhaps “Retrospective of Seventy Years of ‘New’ Music” would offer a more accurate description. In the past, the Fromm Foundation has offered commissions for new works to be premiered during this week with the composers presiding; this summer, the five-day event will look back on the entire seventy years of Tanglewood rather than the fifty-four years of the Festival of Contemporary Music, as supported by Fromm.
The news I have been expecting has now officially arrived:
James Levine will withdraw from his concerts with the BSO and Tanglewood Music Center due to further recuperation time needed after recent back surgery.
Michael Tilson Thomas will lead the BSO opening night performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 on July 9, and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Mozart’s Requiem on July 16, as well as the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 on July 17.
Christoph von Dohnányi will conduct the staged Tanglewood Music Center Production of Strauss’s Ariadne Auf Naxos on August 1 And 2.
Johannes Debus will have his BSO Debut, conudctin Mozart’s The Abduction From Seraglio on July 23
Hans Graf will lead the BSO in program of marches, waltzes, and polkas by the Strauss Family on July 25 .
An announcement about substitute conductor for program of Strauss’s Four Last Songs and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 with Soprano Hei-Kyung Hong on July 31 will be forthcoming.
These and other changes have been entered in the season schedule below.
What can one say to this? I left my opening sentence as it was, because Maestro Levine’s cancellations are now routine. I wrote a defense of the Maestro back in February, and that still stands. Levine has improved the orchestra, organized some excellent programs, and conducted some brilliant performances, along with some mediocre ones. There is nothing sadder than being unable to work, especially if it is an artistic vocation to which one is devoted, and Mr. Levine’s health may well be out of his control, but he has disappointed his audiences and his TMC students for too long. He has missed 60% of his BSO engagements this past season, and now there is more. We don’t know what to expect next season, either at the BSO or at the Met, where Levine was to inaugurate a much-publicized new Ring Cycle. There is enough evidence for us to conclude that he is truly physically incapable of pursuing the agenda he has taken up at both institutions. It is time for him to cut back his commitments to the point where he can give his best to his public and his students on a reliable, if not consistent basis.
Last Friday, January 15th, the Cantata Singers under Music Director David Hoose continued their season centered around the music of Heinrich Schütz, on this occasion performing at the First Church, Cambridge. This can be a problematic venue, with blurry sound, especially for solo voices. But Friday there were no solo voices, and the a capella mixed choir and eventually a small orchestra sounded fine—well balanced and clear enough, at least where I was sitting, which was fairly close. The audience was large and enthusiastic. The fine concert deserved their appreciation.
I yearn for the day when a thoroughly sympathetic view of Schumann emerges, one supplanting the lingering idea, passed on from biographer to musician to music-lover and back, insinuating that his music, while selectively inspired, was hampered by enough contrapuntal inexperience, unevenness in motivic invention, formal insecurity, and outright incompetence in orchestration that it should not be considered in the same sphere with Chopin’s, Liszt’s, or even Brahms’s.
Boston is full of excellent musicians who give concerts in various configurations of established chamber music groups, early and new music groups, and orchestras of various kinds other than the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and of course in solo recital. For musical performance and presentation of a great range of music, we are blessed in Boston. In early October I attended my first concert by the Chameleon Arts Ensemble, playing at the Goethe Institute on Beacon Street, where the large high-ceilinged double parlor makes a great venue for music, with a rich, resonant, vivid sound right to the back, though with small chairs all on one level and on this occasion a packed house, it was hard to see.
John Harbison is a composer of international importance and deserves, and gets, performances and honors everywhere. But it is especially appropriate that Boston honor him, on this the occasion of his seventieth birthday, because he has given so much to the city as teacher, founder and leader of musical groups, promoter of music’s importance, encourager of young musicians, and, yes, composer. Boston’s many musical organizations, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, have turned to Harbison over the years for new pieces and been supplied with plenty that have meant a great deal to audiences here—chamber ensemble works, vocal works, symphonies. In the concert of March 20th, the formidable Boston Modern Orchestra Project, led by Gil Rose, presented in concert version Harbison’s early opera Winter’s Tale, based on the Shakespeare play. And though at the end the audience reception was very warm for all concerned, the greatest applause went to the composer.