The BSO's 2012-2013 Season of Stars (and 17 Conductors)

By | Arts & Entertainment |

At 5:01 a.m. this morning, the Boston Symphony Orchestra announced its 2012-2013 season, and I’m both totally pumped and naggingly frustrated.

Frustration first: It seems that every week I’m talking to someone whose friend of a client of a friend knows someone who’s best buddies with a BSO trustee on the committee to find a new conductor for the James Levine-free orchestra. And what I always hear is that the search for such a key job takes years, and that you can’t just plug in a Bobby Valentine-like guy for a couple years, but come on. While other orchestras continue to consolidate their identities and musical visions, the BSO continues to feel like a greatest-hits orchestra. (And to be fair, it did so a little bit under Levine, since he was hardly ever there by the end.) At this point, the Boston Pops has way more identity than the BSO, which is half due to the irrepressible, unavoidable efforts of Keith Lockhart and half due to the fact that BSO hasn’t had a truly engaged, locally based leader in years. It looked good when the studly Riccardo Chailly was rumored to be the next musical director and was coming to perform two weeks in January … until he cancelled (for health reasons), which really didn’t look so good. Why must one of very best and admired orchestras in the world continue to sail without a rudder?

Whew. Tirade over. Now can we get to the new season?

Here’s where I’m totally pumped: Even a cursory glance shows that if the BSO can’t get its resin-stained, callused hands on its awesome new leader quite yet, it’s going to grab as many awesome guests as it can. And let’s give the BSO some credit for knowing what they need to sell in their press release, as they specifically hype the fact that they’ve got “Seventeen Acclaimed Guest Conductors” coming to 301 Mass. Ave. this season. Big names like Bernard Haitink, Charles Dutoit, and Christoph von Dohnányi are returning to the podium, while others like Vladimir Jurowski and Andris Nelsons make their BSO and subscription series debuts, respectively. And I admit to loving the old romantic ideal of a composer conducting his own work, and the BSO will feature that twice, with Thomas Adès (Nov. 15–17) and Oliver Knussen (April 12–13, 2013).

And that’s just the maestros. As for the performers, you’ve got opening night on September 22, with violinist Itzhak Perlman conducting and soloing, the first time he’s done both at Symphony Hall. (Really? Is this true? Perhaps it’s because we don’t have a full-time conductor … sorry for flogging this dead horse, but I do so with love.) Then, throughout the season, you have superstars from all over the world, including Indiana-born violinist Joshua Bell, Israeli-American violinist Pinchas Zukerman, Chinese pianist Lang Lang, and French organist Olivier Latry. (For those who don’t know Latry, check out his box set of Messiaen’s complete organ works, recorded at the Notre-Dame in Paris. It’ll blow your ears out.) And there will be many vocal programs, such as Dawn Upshaw singing Sibelius (Nov. 15–17), Anne Sofie von Otter singing Mahler’s third symphony (March 28–30, 2013), and — most intriguingly, considering the A.R.T’s spectacular recent success with it — a concert (not theatrical) performance of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, featuring Alfred Walker and Laquita Mitchell in the title roles.

Where I have occasionally had some issues with the BSO in the past is their traditional choice of music, and Perlman’s presence notwithstanding, starting the season with an all-Beethoven program is a bit of a yawner. (Everyone should experience the full power of Ludwig van in live performance — but if you attend the BSO with any regularity, you most certainly have many times over.) And while I understand the need to celebrate the bicentennial birthdays of both Wagner and Verdi (way to go, 1813!), it’s still pretty safe.

Yes, traditional choices always sell tickets, but occasionally I like to see the BSO branch out. Fortunately, they’re doing some of that here, such as with the Adès and Knussen composer-performer nights. Then there are the two new commissions: One is American composer Augusta Read Thomas’s Cello Concerto No. 3, which gets a world premiere here (March 14–16, 2013), and Circle Map for orchestra and electronics (!!!) by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (November 1–6). Bell is performing Bernstein’s Serenade, a five-movement work based on Plato’s Symposium (October 4–6), and Latry is tackling Saint-Saën’s Symphony No. 3 (March 14–16), which will give audiences the rare thrill of a full-throated organ backed by a full orchestra. Add in a number of smaller, lesser known pieces scattered throughout the season, and there’s a lot to like here.

So in the end, the BSO continues to offer some of the best music and performances we’re able to hear anywhere on the globe. It’s easy to get a little jaded, and it’s better to snap out of it, especially with so many orchestras in smaller cities struggling for relevance and/or survival. Here in Boston, we can be glad that the sheer force of the BSO brand combined with some tireless effort has delivered once again. Now just imagine what it’ll be like when that baton-twirling savior comes walking out on stage.