Boston Symphony launches a transitional season with an eye toward future podium potential

September 30, 2011
By David Wright

Anne-Sophie Mutter will open the BSO's season this weekend performing the complete Mozart violin concertos.

The season-opening concert by the Boston Symphony Orchestra Friday night will be accompanied by the usual champagne, evening gowns, and festive mood. But it will lack one thing symphonic opening nights usually have: a conductor.

Instead, violin soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter will lead the orchestra in two violin concertos by Mozart, Nos. 3 and 5, K. 216 and 219. The following night, Mutter will return to complete the Mozart concerto cycle with Nos. 2, 1 and 4, K. 211, 207, and 218.

By engaging Mutter as the non-conductor conductor for its opening concerts, the BSO aims to accomplish three things: frankly acknowledging its leaderless status following the resignation of music director James Levine for health reasons, effective last September 1; showcasing the orchestra itself as a strong, cohesive ensemble; and tamping down speculation about who’s ahead in the race to be Levine’s successor in Boston.

“If we’d engaged a conductor for opening night,” said the orchestra’s managing director Mark Volpe, “it would have been over-read.” So, instead of the original plan of opening with Levine conducting and Mutter playing “a big Romantic concerto,” Volpe said, “Anne-Sophie is known for her Mozart cycle, so we asked her to bring it to Boston.

“We’re treating it as a mini-festival. Boston responds well to that kind of programming,” Volpe added hopefully.

For the rest of this season and possibly the next one, BSO audiences will see a now-familiar diet of guest conductors. The orchestra’s last interregnum was less than a decade ago, from 2002 to 2004, between the departure of longtime music director Seiji Ozawa and the moment when Levine became available to step fully into the post. During Levine’s tenure, a record of notable artistic accomplishments was marred by cancellations when sciatica and other health problems made it impossible for him to take the podium—or, more accurately, his tall swivel chair.

During this period, Volpe has spun his international Rolodex time and again in search of substitutes. Some conductors whose cards came up so often they are almost as familiar to Bostonians as Levine himself, such as Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos and Charles Dutoit, will be back this season. So will retired music directors of other so-called “Big Five” orchestras: Kurt Masur, Christoph Eschenbach, Christoph von Dohnányi.

Other familiar faces will include Ludovic Morlot, a former BSO assistant conductor who is just beginning a five-year contract as music director of the Seattle Symphony, and Bernard Haitink, who has been either principal guest conductor or conductor emeritus of the BSO since 1994. At a vigorous 82, Haitink will close the season with three programs in April and May. David Zinman, a frequent visitor to Boston, will lead a program in January.

Conspicuously absent from this season’s calendar is Michael Tilson Thomas, a Symphony Hall and Tanglewood favorite whose history with the BSO goes back to his fairy-tale debut in 1969, at age 24, when he substituted in mid-concert for an indisposed William Steinberg to brilliant effect. Thomas’s name naturally rises to the top whenever speculation occurs about Levine’s successor, although the still youthful-looking conductor will turn 67 this year and has given no indication of dissatisfaction with his longtime post as music director of the San Francisco Symphony.

Mark Volpe, BSO managing director. Photo: Michael Lutch.

So much for the comfort zone. The real buzz this season will of course be about the newcomers to the Boston podium. Is there a music director in there somewhere?

Volpe refuses to join in handicapping the field—a process that has been going on in Boston for at least a couple of years, since Levine’s cancellations became more frequent–but he acknowledges that “it’s the natural thing for the audience to do,” and that he too will be watching the conductors for “chemistry with the audience and the musicians.”

He expects the chemistry to happen some weeks and not others. “That’s the natural way of things,” he said. “And you know, it’s not just about a music director. An orchestra is always looking for new relationships with conductors, both for artistic reasons and for audience building.” Certainly if any orchestra manager knows how much he needs relationships, it’s Volpe.

The parade of debutantes and near-debutantes is led by the eminent Italian conductor Riccardo Chailly, who will lead two programs in January. The Korean-born Myung-Whun Chung puts in his first Boston appearance in 15 years, so for many his November program will seem like a debut. The BSO’s current assistant conductors, Sean Newhouse and Marcelo Lehninger, will each take a turn. Newhouse and the Latvian Andris Nelsons will each hope that his successful BSO debut, made last year as a last-minute substitute for the indisposed Levine, proves to be his own “MTT moment” with the orchestra.

Filling out the international cast of new faces (or backs) are Juanjo Mena of Spain, Jirí Belohlávek of the Czech Republic, Jaap van Zweden (from the Netherlands), Stéphane Denève of France, Juraj Valcuha of Slovakia, and the Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, who will lead a Bach violin concerto and orchestral works by Lutoslawski and Beethoven.

Are there any Tom Bradys in that group? Well, when he started out, even Tom Brady wasn’t Tom Brady. (For the football-challenged: Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is the most admired person in New England, after James Levine.) However, many observers will see that conductor lineup as a season-long drum roll for the entrance–on April 12, 2012, just before the closing series with Haitink–of Esa-Pekka Salonen, in a program aimed straight at the BSO’s traditional strengths: Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, Stravinsky’s complete Firebird, and Salonen’s own Violin Concerto with Leila Josefowicz as soloist.

Salonen has said he gave up the music directorship at the Los Angeles Philharmonic in order to have more time to compose. But James Levine, music director of the Metropolitan Opera, has shown that the BSO post can be a part-time position—or at least could be, in the hands of someone in better health. Prestigious post, time to compose . . . from Salonen’s point of view, what’s not to like?

“We don’t have a cult of personality in Boston, they way they do in other places,” Mark Volpe said. “When you think of Boston, you think of the institutions: Harvard, MIT, Mass. General Hospital, the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Who the leaders are isn’t as important. Just look at what’s on the cover of our season brochure. It’s the hall.”

The Boston Symphony Orchestra opens its season with Anne-Sophie Mutter performing Mozart’s Violin Concertos Nos. 3 and 5 Friday night and Nos. 1, 2 and 4 on Saturday.; 617-266-1200.

David Wright’s articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Financial Times, and Opera News. A winner of the Deems Taylor Award, he has written program notes for all the major American orchestras as well as Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and New York’s 92nd Street Y.

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