The Year that Was: Boston Classical Music in 2015

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Andris Nelsons, Boston's Problem Child? Photo Chris Lee.

Andris Nelsons, Boston’s Problem Child? Photo Chris Lee.

The major news from Boston was the ascendancy of Andris Nelsons, firming up his place as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which included a quickly agreed upon three-year extension of his contract into the 2020-2021 season. This announcement was soon followed by the less happy surprise for Bostonians of Nelsons also accepting an offer from the eminent Leipzig Gewandhaus, the orchestra whose music director was once no less than Felix Mendelssohn, to take on that very position, beginning in the 2017-2018 season, thus dividing the loyalties of the young maestro (who just turned 37), though evidently with the possibility of collaborations between the two orchestras. (Remember when some people were complaining about James Levine dividing his time between the BSO and the Metropolitan Opera?)

Another important result of Nelsons’s directorship of the BSO was a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon to release recordings of live BSO performances of Nelsons conducting Shostakovich symphonies in a series called “Under Stalin’s Shadow.” DG has already issued the huge autobiographical Tenth Symphony, for which Nelsons has just received his first Grammy nomination. He has already conducted the more playful Ninth Symphony and the more popular Fifth, but these haven’t yet been released.

James Levine was not a huge admirer of Shostakovich symphonies, and I’m with him. I find most of them bloated and heavy-handed, owing a lot to Mahler but without Mahler’s melodic gift, scintillating orchestrations, or sense of interiority. Though in the best performances—as on the recordings by Yevgeny Mravinsky, who premiered a number of the symphonies, or at the BSO under Valery Gergiev, Vasily Petrenko (two years older than Nelsons), and Vladimir Jurowski (six years older)—they achieve a transcendent, exploratory intensity, and suddenly get to be about something more than noise and energy.

Nelsons has not yet achieved this transcendence in Shostakovich. A young violinist friend of mine said he’s performed the Fifth Symphony more than a dozen times and it always brings down the house, no matter how badly it’s played. Of course, the BSO didn’t play it badly, but in the three symphonies Nelsons has led so far, there was a kind of fervent detachment, “sound and fury” (if not actual noise) signifying very little of anything like real feeling. When you listen to the first few bars of Mravinsky leading the Shostakovich Tenth, you’re immediately drawn into a complex emotional vortex; listen to Nelsons and you hear a lot of vigorously-played notes. One of the qualities I admired in Petrenko was his ability to convey simultaneously different information to different parts of the orchestra. Nelsons, on the other hand, with his habit of resting one hand on the podium rail even while he’s doing some pretty acrobatic lunging and dipping, is actually conducting much of the time with only one arm, and often, rather than shaping complete phrases, conducting just one note at a time. (He’s just had to cancel two programs with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam because of an “acute shoulder strain issue.”)

This year’s biggest test for Nelsons was his eagerly awaited Strauss Elektra, with the Metropolitan Opera’s Christine Goerke in the title role. Nelsons’s previous Strauss opera, Salome, was enthusiastically received, though I thought he favored steamroller power over the opera’s subversive moral complexity. In Oscar Wilde’s play, essentially the libretto for the opera, Salome is a willful teenager whose sexual obsession turns her into a monster. What’s so transgressive about both the play and the opera is that at least part of the time we actually identify with Salome. But Nelsons’s Salome, as played by German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin, was a steely monster to begin with, for whom it was impossible to feel any sympathy, thus eliminating the uneasy undercurrent of moral mal-de-mer.

But Elektra worked better. Nelsons captured more of the orchestral richness, and for the most part allowed the unusual tonal warmth in Goerke’s upper register to sail over or through the heavy orchestration. She could really sing this part, and beautifully—though her stiff and limited stage movements, especially in Elektra’s suicidal victory dance at the end, undercut her vocal intensity. Barkmin was back, as Elektra’s timid sister, Chrysothemis, and in rather shriller, less steady voice. During the curtain call, she seemed to think she had just played the leading role, barely ceding center stage when Goerke came out for her deserved ovation. In any event, this big gamble for Nelsons paid off.

My favorite Nelsons concert was his last for this season—not the most ambitious program, yet a thoroughly satisfying one. He began with an unscheduled performance of Bach’s Air on a G string, in memory of the BSO’s venerated former concertmaster, Joseph Silverstein, who died unexpectedly on November 21. The week before, Nelsons had scheduled a Bach motet and chorale to precede the Berg Violin Concerto with Isabelle Faust. Because Berg quotes the chorale, it was an interesting idea, and the BSO, not known for its Bach, had never scheduled either of these pieces before. But the Air was even better—a familiar piece that sang with touching restraint and shapely “vocal” phrasing from the reduced orchestra (Nelsons leading with both hands).

The program then officially began with Haydn’s early symphony, No. 30 in C, Alleluia, and it too went better than Nelsons’s last Haydn, the later No. 90, which felt both thin and heavy. No. 30 was suave and playful and effortlessly charming. Just right—except that Nelsons still refuses to divide the first and second violins antiphonally, as Haydn would have done, and as such distinguished BSO guest conductors as Christoph von Dohnányi do regularly, allowing the audience to hear more clearly the stereophonic dialogue between the two sections.

This elegant work was followed by a vigorous Bartók Second Piano Concerto, with Yefim Bronfman tearing into the score and Nelsons keeping pace. Not the most insinuating or multi-colored performance, but still riveting. Then Nelsons left Boston with what for me was the best thing he’s done here so far, a lilting Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 1, “Winter Daydreams,” which floated out some of the composer’s prettiest melodies, and in not trying to prove anything (Nelsons’s gestures here surprisingly minimal), proved that he was actually paying attention to the music. I liked him for this offbeat choice of repertoire, and because he actually seemed to like his choice. He’ll be back in Boston at the end of January, we hope with his shoulder healed.

Gunther Schuller

Gunther Schuller

The other major news of 2015 was the death of a Boston superhero—a  composer with a Pulitzer Prize, conductor, horn player, teacher, recording executive and producer, publisher, administrator (New England Conservatory, Tanglewood Music Center), classical and jazz historian, memoirist, raconteur, and innovator (what else am I leaving out?). Gunther Schuller died just short of his 90th birthday. He’d been getting thinner and visibly weaker from leukemia, but his most recent compositions had the liveliness and fun of a much more youthful artist. And though I was disappointed with the heavy-handedness of a recent chamber piece he wrote for Collage New Music, performed posthumously this fall, his late pieces for the BSO were irresistible.

My last encounter with Gunther (every meeting with him was an event) took place in the lobby of Symphony Hall last April, just before the BSO/Boston premiere of his 2012 Tanglewood commission, the complexly phantasmagorical and sometimes hilarious Dreamscape (originally debuted by the Tanglewood student orchestra under Schuller himself). “Andris is doing a good job,” he told me, “but the BSO never devotes enough rehearsal time for new pieces.” He demanded to speak to Nelsons before the concert, and the conductor was summoned out to the lobby, where he leaned his gangly body over Schuller’s wheel chair to receive his last-minute instructions. The piece got a huge ovation and the composer, helped to his feet, took his bow from his aisle seat in Row X.

Schuller himself was scheduled to lead his latest Tanglewood commission, Magical Trumpets, at the 2015 Festival of Contemporary Music, but this wildly exuberant piece for 12 trumpets in eight different sizes and keys ended up under the secure baton of young Jonathan Berman, a hero of the Festival who successfully substituted at the last minute (even without rehearsal) for more than one conductor MIA. (Unfortunately, I was out of town during the November weekend of memorial celebrations by the New England Conservatory, BMOP, and Odyssey Opera.)

Opera was a big part of the year that was. And the best of it didn’t always come from the usual sources. Elektra was certainly exciting, but the best of the BSO’s operatic ventures this year was Charles Dutoit conducting Karol Szymanowski’s bizarre and sumptuous King Roger (1926), an opera suggested by Euripides’s The Bacchae, with Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecień in his signature role as the spiritually and sexually conflicted king.

Benjamin Zander, best known as a Mahler specialist, has lately become extremely interested in Wagner. With his Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, at Symphony Hall last spring, he led an astounding performance of the massive third act of Siegfried, with a magnificent performance by the expressive, warm-toned British dramatic soprano Alwyn Mellor as the heroic, but suddenly humanized Brünnhilde. In the fall, with the Boston Philharmonic, and with Mellor again, Zander led excerpts from Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger, and Götterdämerung. I attended the first of three performances, and neither Zander nor Mellor had quite begun to settle in yet, to breathe Wagner, though there were many magnificent passages, especially in the orchestral sequences from Götterdämerung. There’s so little Wagner in Boston, I’m eager to discover what other Wagner Zander has up his sleeve.

For fully staged opera, the best of the year by far was Odyssey Opera’s “British Invasion”—scintillating productions of real rarities of English opera: Ralph Vaughan Williams’ endearing Sir John in Love (like Verdi’s Falstaff an opera based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, but in a mellower vain); Sir William Walton’s hilarious The Bear (based on a Chekhov one-act play), with splendid baritone Stephen Salters and the totally uninhibited mezzo-soprano Janna Baty memorably fleshing out their farcical roles—on a double bill with an even rarer and sillier work, The Zoo, by Sir Arthur Sullivan without Gilbert. Odyssey’s short season ended with the first Boston performance of Thomas Adès’s outrageous Powder Her Face since Odyssey director Gil Rose led it in 2003 as part of Opera Boston’s “Opera Unlimited” series (at that time with the unforgettable and still unmatched Baty as the scandalous Duchess).

As a special bonus, Odyssey also offered opera lovers an evening of five monodramas by British composers, very short operatic works that require only a single singer each. The undoubted star might have been soprano Elizabeth Keusch, who sang eight different characters in Judith Weir’s 10-minute King Harald’s Saga, but Thomas Meglioranza, as George III in Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s masterpiece Eight Songs for a Mad King, was even more remarkable in the almost unbearable intensity of his vocal and dramatic psychosis.

Odyssey Opera was back in September with its annual concert version of an opera too big to stage. This year it was another unusual work, Massenet’s sweeping and sentimental Le Cid, which turns out to have more to it than its two famous crowd-pleasing arias. The two principals (including, alas, the no longer sweet-toned Met tenor Paul Groves) were a bit out of their vocal depth, but the featured secondary singers (mostly Odyssey regulars), the chorus, and Rose leading the Odyssey orchestra (especially in the colorful series of Spanish dances) were magnificent. Can’t wait to see what Odyssey has in store for us this coming year.

Other opera productions were less successful. In the spring, Boston Lyric Opera’s first venture into staging a Janáček opera made the grim Kátya Kabanová (sung here in leaden English) seem merely dreary. In the fall season’s La Bohème, updated to the 1968 Paris riots, the heavy-handed political interpolations never quite jelled with Puccini’s tender and sometimes comic love story. In its Opera Annex series, BLO staged Philip Glass’s minimalist version of Franz Kafka’s terrifying In the Penal Colony in a fascinating venue, the Boston Cyclorama. For the first time in decades, Glass’s needling repetitions seemed appropriate for this harrowing subject, but the production rather glamorized Kafka’s chillingly detached satirical tone.

Even ART gave us an opera, a new one—but a disappointment. This was young composer Matthew Aucoin’s Crossing, an attempt to dramatize the story of Walt Whitman as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War. Diane Paulus’s misguided staging and some embarrassing choreography didn’t help Aucoin’s weak libretto or familiar musical gestures (however skillfully orchestrated), though the brilliant playing by the group, A Far Cry, did.

Of course, opera lovers could pay hundreds of dollars to for seats at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but for a fraction of that amount, they could attend a Live in HD telecast at a local movie theater practically anywhere in the world. The problem is that they are still stuck with the inherent quality of the Met productions. The best of these telecasts included Wagner’s Tannhaüser, magnificently conducted by James Levine, perhaps for the last time, in what was once an impressive production that is getting retired not a moment too soon, and an old production of Verdi’s irresistibly melodic warhorse Il Trovatore, in which diva Anna Netrebko eventually warmed up to some glorious singing in the great Miserere scene; handsome and full-voiced Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee rang out as the valiant Manrico, torn between love for his fiancée and his Gypsy mother; and glamorous Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky (he’s even prettier than Netrebko) made a heroic return to the Met despite undergoing treatment for a brain tumor, singing the Count di Luna with far more genuine passion than just his customary finesse.

And there was the new production many of us had been most excited about seeing: Alban Berg’s Lulu, as staged by South African artist/director William Kentridge. This time, I really wish I had been in the opera house, so that I could focus on what I wanted to see, not just what the TV camera let me. So I felt I was getting only a sidelong glimpse of the actual production, which might have been too busy for its own good, but was more than I could actually see. Still, it’s amazing that this challenging, gripping, and in some ways hard-to-take 20th-century masterpiece was seen by countless millions of people around the world—maybe more people than had ever seen all the previous productions of it combined. German soprano Marlis Petersen was the iconic heroine, both femme fatale and victim, and American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham was startlingly sympathetic in an unusual role for her, the desperate Lesbian countess willing to sacrifice everything for love of Lulu.

The title character of Friedrich van Flotow’s Martha (not her real name) is also something of a flirt, but considerably less experienced than Lulu. Under conductor Susan Davenny Wyner’s sure musical hand, Boston Midsummer Opera delivered a lively and amusing performance. And there was engaging, fully-staged work continuing from some of our smaller companies: Hub Opera, Guerilla Opera, Boston Opera Collaborative, Commonwealth Lyric Theatre. I was, however, recently saddened to hear of the demise of Opera Brittenica, an ambitious fledgling company devoted to refined and highly musical productions of the works of Benjamin Britten. Their 2014 production of Britten’s The Burning Fiery Furnace, under the sure guiding hand of the late Donald Teeters, was one of the most elegant and powerful productions of a Britten opera I’ve ever seen. I’m sorry they couldn’t make it.

I congratulate Emmanuel Music for bringing Bostonians, in concert, Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio). Under music director Ryan Turner (who also conducted Glass’s Kafka opera), this was not one of Emmanuel’s most refined or illuminating achievements, but it was still a delightful evening well spent, and a blessed opportunity to hear one of Mozart’s comic masterpieces.

The single (or triple) most ambitious operatic undertaking of the year was surely the Boston Early Music Festival’s staging of all three of Claudio Monteverdi’s seminal operas: Orfeo, The Coronation of Poppea, and The Return of Ulysses to His Homeland. Referred to by wags as “The Full Monty,” these productions, under co-music directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, were more satisfying musically than dramatically. Still, it was a singular opportunity to hear all three operas in a single week.

David Hoose, the distinguished and adventurous music director of Collage New Music and the Cantata Singers has also, since 1987, directed the Boston University Symphony Orchestra. In November, he stepped down from this position, leading, on the second half of a Symphony Hall concert, a rare performance of Stravinsky’s ravishing Perséphone, an ambitious work in the odd genre of “melodrama,” involving a chorus, a tenor soloist (Yeghishe Manucharyan), and a speaker (Sara Heaton), singing and reciting the eloquent, evocative French text by André Gide about the mythic daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the Greek harvest goddess, and her abduction by Hades to become queen of the underworld. The performance was magical, and for all of us a memorable, bittersweet farewell to a superb conductor.

I’m especially grateful for several non-vocal concerts. The year started off extremely well. Moscow-born violinist Johnny Gandelsman of the string quartet Brooklyn Rider and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble made his Boston debut in a free concert at MIT’s Killian Hall, playing Bach’s complete sonatas and partitas for solo violin, which include the famous (and magnificent) 15-minute Chaconne. It was an epic undertaking, with Gandelsman delivering thoughtful, tender, open-hearted performances. Enthusiastic cheers from the crowd included a shout of “Encore!” from a familiar local cellist. Gandelsman reciprocated—and drew a hearty laugh—with a couple of bars from one of Bach’s suites for solo cello. Later in the season, the Celebrity Series of Boston brought Brooklyn Rider to the new concert hall at the Berklee School for an exhilarating program based on the group’s latest album, Almanac. 

The Celebrity Series also sponsored several other deeply satisfying concerts. Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes led from the keyboard three sparkling Beethoven concertos with his young Mahler Chamber Orchestra, including a breathtaking Third. Then we got Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili and British pianist Paul Lewis, a Boston favorite. Along with a couple of solos for each of them (Telemann, Bach/Busoni), they played two extroverted Schubert pieces and Beethoven’s extraordinary last sonata (Opus 96, No. 10, in G major)—the violin and piano in perfect accord, the dearest of friends. And the season swept to a close with the Takács Quartet playing—warmly and wisely—Haydn’s late Quartet in C (Opus 74, No. 1), introducing to Boston a likable new piece (Timo Andres’s Strong Language), and ending with a subdued but lovely performance of Dvořák’s A-major Quartet, No. 14.

In conjunction with the Institute of Contemporary Art’s Black Mountain College exhibit, Leap Before You Look, Merce Cunningham dancer Silas Riener (wearing a crimson costume designed by Robert Rauschenberg) danced his reconstruction of an extraordinary 1957 Cunningham solo called Changeling (the ICA also showed a film of Cunningham himself doing it), with the Callithumpian Consort’s brilliant director Stephen Drury playing the ticklishly edgy piano music by Christian Wolff, followed by Drury playing John Cage for Cunningham excerpts danced by a team of wonderful young dancers from the Boston Conservatory (coached by Riener). Also at the ICA, Pierre Boulez’s estimable Ensemble Intercontemporain played a short program alternating musical fragments by Cage and Boulez, such diametrically opposite avant-gardistes, with poet and folk-rock star Damon Krukowski lovingly reading passages from the two composers’ revealing correspondence.

And let me close with my favorite new piece of the year, premiered at the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music: Yehudi Wyner’s gorgeous and moving Sonnet: In the Arms of Sleep, his profound transformation for soprano (Lucy Shelton), two backup mezzos, and a chamber group of strings, winds, and harp, of a sonnet by the 17-year-old Elizabeth Bishop. Bishop’s slight prayer for the peace that music brings becomes in Wyner’s hands a deep looking back over a whole life dedicated to music.

About the author

Lloyd Schwartz

Lloyd Schwartz, Senior Editor of Classical Music at New York Arts, is Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a regular commentator on music and the arts for NPR’s Fresh Air. For 35 years, he was Classical Music Editor of the Boston Phoenix. He is the author of four poetry collections (most recently Little Kisses, U of Chicago Press) and the editor of three volumes by and about poet Elizabeth Bishop, including the Library of America’s Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters. His poems, articles, and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Opera News, Vanity Fair, New Republic, Paris Review, Ploughshares, The Pushcart Prize, Best American Poetry, and The Best of the Best American Poetry. He’s a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for his writing about music, and the recipient of a grant from the Amphion Foundation for his writing on contemporary music. In 1994, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.

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