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23.9.05

Beethoven, Schoenberg, and James Levine

Ionarts is taking over the world. With this post, we welcome new contributor Frank Pesci, Jr., an old musician friend from Washington, who has recently relocated to Boston. This is his first report on what's up with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Next weekend, Maestro James Levine begins his second season leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The BSO’s programming features an acrobatic display of 20th-century orchestral works, including a heavy dose of Americana: Gershwin, Ives, Elliot Carter, Lukas Foss (all on one program), Copland, Jonathon Dawe, George Perle, Gunther Schuller, and premiers from Michael Gandolfi and Peter Lieberson. It's not difficult to understand the emphasis on American composers, since Levine is the first American the BSO has hired as its music director in its 125-year history.

A quick comparison of the programming of other major northeastern orchestras – National, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York – with Boston’s shows a less than enthusiastic approach to new works or pieces by American composers, let alone late-20th-century fare in general. Gershwin and non-lethal doses of Stravinsky seem to be hip this year, as are the all-Mozart programs commemorating the 250th anniversary of his birth. The BSO, in addition to its all-Mozart concert, is presenting all-French (opening night), all-American, and all-Boston – Copland, Ives, Hanson, Piston, and Frederick Converse (whose opera, The Pipe of Desire was the first American opera to be performed at the Met) – in addition to several all-Beethoven and all-Schoenberg programs. These last two commence a two-year project juxtaposing major works of Beethoven and Schoenberg.

This is not necessarily a new concept in programming - historical records of Beethoven/Schoenberg performances by American orchestras are easy to find, from the Indianapolis Symphony to the L.A. Philharmonic. The Philadelphia Orchestra is currently on to something similar this season, pairing Beethoven symphonies with premiere commissions from Jennifer Higdon, Bright Sheng, and Daniel Kellogg. Good orchestral recordings of deliberately programmed pieces by Beethoven and Schoenberg take a little digging, but do exist. The breadth of the BSO’s project, however, is daring and welcome, boasting 11 programs over the next two seasons. The pairing itself has been the subject of cautious discussion, ranging from the composers’ overindulgence in their own psyches at the expense of everyone else (I found Dylan Evans’s July 2005 article in The Guardian very entertaining), to one composer fundamentally refuting the other (succinctly displayed on Alex Ross’s blog), to the somewhat bland reasoning the BSO offers in their own press release:

While seemingly very different, the parallels between the two composers are striking, and taken together their work makes an incredibly powerful statement. These carefully crafted programs examine how Beethoven and Schoenberg both broke new ground while working within traditional forms, while also reflecting the immense range of the individual development within their respective bodies of work.
Well, whatever that means, the ensuing melee should still be fun to watch. The BSO will also conduct a tour of the northeast, making a stop in DC on March 11, 2006. That program will include Peter Lieberson's Neruda Songs, featuring mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as soloist, Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, Elliott Carter's Three Illusions for Orchestra, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7.

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