Gustavo Dudamel, the charismatic young (he turned 33 at the end of January) music director of the LA Philharmonic returned to Boston for the first time since he and the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela lit a fire under the audience at Symphony Hall in November of 2007. He was here in two capacities: conducting the LA Phil at Symphony Hall on the last stop of its seven-city North American tour (nine concerts in the US and Canada in 13 days), and leading an hour-long open rehearsal at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium with players eight to 15 years old and graduate students—about 114 of them—from the Sistema Side by Side orchestra established last fall by Cambridge’s Longy School of Music of Bard College.
Articles by Lloyd Schwartz
I was part of the capacity crowd at Boston’s Symphony Hall (March 6) that rose to its collective feet to cheer BSO music director designate Andris Nelson’s first opera with his new orchestral family. Richard Strauss is one of his favorite composers, and at the press conference the day before he announced that among the ten relatively conservative programs he’s doing in his upcoming first season as music director, he’s scheduled two familiar Strauss tone poems, Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life—“Not about myself,” he joked). The BSO’s only opera next season, one of its few daring choices of repertoire, will be Charles Dutoit leading the first BSO performance of Szymanowski’s King Roger, with Polish baritone Marius Kwiecień repeating his Paris and Santa Fe triumphs in the title role.
I can’t think of any musical event this season I was more looking forward to than Canadian baritone Gerald Finley singing Schubert’s Winterreise at Jordan Hall (February 7), and I’d been almost equally excited about hearing Russian-born pianist Kirill Gerstein return to Boston for a full length Jordan Hall piano recital (January 31). Both concerts were sponsored by the Celebrity Series of Boston, and both sounded great on paper.
The title A Little Night Music is only the first of the many inspired elements of Stephen Sondheim’s inspired 1973 musical version of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (or, more correctly translated, I’m told, Smiles of the Summer Night—i.e., the night of the summer solstice). Of course it calls up both Bergman’s most subtle comedy as well as Mozart’s most famous serenade. And although Sondheim’s stream of waltzes and other triple-meter dances more directly evolves from Viennese operetta than Viennese opera, there’s a consistent Mozartian elegance and chiaroscuro to this work. The high water mark of Sondheim’s career was probably in the 1970s, the decade of Company (1970), Follies (1971), Pacific Overtures (1976), and Sweeney Todd (1979), all collaborations with director Hal Prince. Everything that followed was more problematic, although many admirers would add Into the Woods (1987) to this list, and I’d also include the moving Passion (1994). Sondheim himself regards his Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George (1984) as his best work.
Stephen Sondheim’s lyric from Follies seems especially suitable for this past year in Boston, and for the classical music world in general. There was a lot of terrible news: the folding of the New York City Opera, the cancellation of Minnesota Orchestra concerts and the ensuing resignation of Osmo Vanskä, the music director who put it on the map (even George Mitchell couldn’t make peace between labor and management). The worst thing to happen to Boston, especially for the arts, was the sudden shutdown of its most important weekly newspaper, The Boston Phoenix (I’m biased, of course, having written for the Phoenix for some 35 years). With only a day’s notice, some wonderful writers were suddenly out on the street, and the go-to place for listings and reviews became the sound of silence.
A few minutes after the final curtain of Two Boys descended, after composer Nico Muhly received his ovation and joined the cast for their curtain calls, I think I figured out the true nature of this opera. This was the first main stage Metropolitan Opera production of the estimable Met/Lincoln Center Theater New Works program. Two Boys has been in the works for over five years, and had its world premiere at the English National Opera in 2011. The Met has given it serious encouragement and high-end attention. The opera has a libretto—based on an actual crime in 2001, in Manchester, England—by playwright Craig Lucas, a Pulitzer and Tony finalist; was directed by Tony Award-winning Bartlett Sher (South Pacific); and conducted by David Robertson, music- director designate of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, a musician especially admired for his performances of contemporary music. The intricate production design by Michael Yeargan, which includes a gloomy police office with overhead fluorescent lights, and projections of computer screens and internet chat rooms (by 59 Productions), is certainly not cheap looking (as was Yeargan’s set for one of the Met’s few other premiere’s in recent decades, John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby). Care and money had clearly gone into this production.
This year will, as everyone hopes, be the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s last season without a music director — at least for another five years. Andris Nelsons has been signed up, and although he’s conducting only two BSO subscription programs this entire year, he’ll be really and officially taking charge next fall. His photo is already on the cover of the BSO program book, with the title “Music Director Designate.”
I’ve always thought it was a terrible idea to stage opera overtures. The music is there to help set the mood for what’s to follow, to allow you to open the magic casements of your imagination and picture for yourself what’s going to happen later—and for the only time to concentrate completely on the music itself. But these days, it’s almost impossible to see any opera performance that doesn’t have a staged overture, and all too often the staging has nothing to do with the music we’re hearing (last season’s Boston Lyric Opera Flying Dutchman was one of the worst offenders in this regard). But it turns out there’s something even worse than staging an overture, and it happened at the Lyric’s new production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute, at the Shubert Theatre, closed October 13).