As everyone in New England knows, this winter was one long slog. But significant musical events actually got to take place, and some of these have been exceptional. But many have been frustrating and disappointing.
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.
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.
“Lizzie Borden took an axe/And gave her mother forty whacks…”—so begins the old rhyme about the 1890s murder case in Fall River, Massachusetts. Both stepmother and father were killed. Though Elizabeth Borden was cleared of the crime in a jury trial, artistic treatments of the case have assumed her guilt, notably Agnes de Mille’s ballet of 1948, Fall River Legend, and Jack Beeson’s opera Lizzie Borden of 1965. There are films and television series, some realized, some still in the planning stage.
The Cantata Singers, one of Boston’s most cherished musical organizations, opened its 50th season September 20th at Jordan Hall with a presentation of its very first program from all those years ago: three Bach cantatas. The audience was large, and people were issued ribbons of various colors to indicate how many years one went back with the organization. Many loyal audience members were present, former singers and musicians with the group, and people otherwise involved in its support and management. There was a feeling of love in the air.
For my part I could not be more pleased that the Cantata Singers, following their usual custom, have devoted this season preponderantly to the music of Ralph Vaughn Williams. Sir Colin Davis' powerful rendition of his Sixth Symphony with the BSO in 2007 was memorable, but not nearly enough to counterbalance the neglect Vaughn Williams' music currently suffers in the United States. In Boston, there is bound to be the odd choral work cropping up in one church or another or on the programs of the many secular choral groups in the area, but the Cantata Singer's focus on Vaughn Williams in their 2010-11 season is none the less welcome.