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Opening nights, opening minds

Innovative new conductors in LA, NY challenge the BSO to do more

From left: Gustavo Dudamel, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Oct. 8; Alan Gilbert, New York Philharmonic, Sept. 16 From left: Gustavo Dudamel, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Oct. 8; Alan Gilbert, New York Philharmonic, Sept. 16 (Mathew Imaging (left); The New York Times)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / October 18, 2009

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Opening night concerts at the most esteemed orchestras are usually a bit of a snooze, but this year they were a shot of adrenaline. In two halls, at least. Change has come to orchestras on both coasts - the New York Philharmonic and at the Los Angeles Philharmonic - with the arrival of two new leaders, Alan Gilbert and Gustavo Dudamel, respectively.

Gilbert is a young (42) American, not previously a brand-name maestro in this country, though one possessed of cool musical insights and a compelling vision of what a modern orchestral ecosystem might look like.

Dudamel, in case you’ve been living in an organ loft, is an astonishingly young (28) Venezuelan firebrand with an electrifying podium presence and a passionate commitment to musical community. Both conductors are bent on taking their ensembles in vital new directions, as was clear from the opening night performances I attended in both cities.

These big shifts in the landscape of American orchestras provide not just an occasion to consider fresh faces but also a chance to look at different models for leading an orchestra into the 21st century. On that urgent issue, New York and Los Angeles are clearly raising the bar. The Boston Symphony Orchestra should be taking note.

Back surgery has recently sidelined BSO music director James Levine, who is now scheduled to return to the podium on Oct. 30, midway through the orchestra’s Beethoven cycle. Health issues notwithstanding, the BSO under Levine, 66, has been playing at a higher level than it has in years.

Yet it is also clear that, after a baseline world-class standard of music-making is met, the pressing issues become not just how an orchestra is sounding but what exactly it is doing with its hard-earned virtuosity.

Weekly performances must of course deliver, but orchestras must also resist the temptation to cocoon themselves in the narcotic sublimity of their own sound. The fear is always that concert halls in America are becoming citadels isolated from the modern-day intellectual and artistic life of the society at large. In that spirit, critics routinely lament that culturally curious people who follow contemporary trends in literature or modern art seem blithely oblivious to classical music. Big orchestras, including the BSO, need to be giving them more reasons to feel otherwise.

Dudamel and Gilbert are only at the start of their tenures and face many tests ahead. Yet they are already coming up with compelling models for coaxing the traditional symphony orchestra - essentially a creation of the 19th century - into the future.

New York sea change
So, beyond its playing, what makes a modern orchestra great? Ideally, its season is a sustained journey of exploration lasting some eight months. The route of course wanders but there must be an animating sense of purpose behind the itinerary, and there must be plenty of stops to nourish the mind, body, and spirit. If the orchestra is to realize its potential, there must - truly must - be larger ideas that help bring alive the music of the past more vibrantly, and that spark connections to the world of today. And on those weeks that the music director is away, which can add up to long stretches, there must still be a curated sensibility that comes through in the programming, creating sustained artistic momentum rather than merely filling the open slots.

Judging by the first season he has proposed, Alan Gilbert gets it. As a conductor who was until recently little known by concert-goers even in New York, he may have seemed a risky choice to those who hold the view that celebrity maestros and soloists are the safest way to build an orchestra. In fact, Gilbert is just what the New York Philharmonic needed after the last seven years under the icy and imperious baton of Lorin Maazel. Gilbert is less grand but more thoughtful. He has designed a season both adventurous and enticing, with some radical departures yet enough continuity to bring his audiences with him as he transforms the orchestra.

All these qualities could be felt in his opening night program, even if there was also a slightly cautious air that never quite disappeared. The first notes he conducted as music director were written last year by the excellent Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg, who has been named the orchestra’s composer-in-residence (a position Gilbert created). The piece, titled “EXPO’’ in honor of Gilbert’s debut, was a complex and glittering orchestral essay, densely scored and full of drama.

Gilbert also recruited the star soprano Renee Fleming. But rather than singing the usual Strauss or Mozart, she agreed to take on “Poemes pour Mi,’’ the pulse-quickening song cycle by the 20th-century master Olivier Messiaen. After intermission Gilbert led a cogent if slightly restrained account of Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.’’ Though his cool temperament did not exactly ignite the house, you could feel a genuine excitement among the crowd for the start of a new era.

And consider Gilbert’s programming ideas. His choice to create a composer-in-residence chair projects a powerful symbolic message that the orchestra is not only a conservator of tradition but also can be a home to creation in the here and now. And Lindberg is an ideal choice. Not only will audiences get to know his sophisticated yet viscerally charged orchestral music, but also he will lecture, teach, perform, and curate a newly created series of contemporary concerts that will take place in more intimate venues than cavernous Avery Fisher Hall.

Gilbert has also inaugurated an annual three-week thematic festival to be led by a prominent guest conductor, inviting audiences to engage more intensively with a particular composer, a musical theme, or a period in history. This year, the festival will look at the Russian roots of a self-styled cosmopolitan, Igor Stravinsky. The Slavic sound-wizard Valerie Gergiev will conduct nothing less than eight different all-Stravinsky programs (several featuring the Mariinsky Theatre Chorus), making this an exceptionally meaty detour in the season’s journey.

In addition to the new works, the new initiatives, and the new energy, Gilbert’s season also makes room for another absolutely essential component: the continued reckoning with the core musical inheritance of the last century. In this case, New York will finally get its first performance of Ligeti’s monumental opera “Le Grand Macabre,’’ in a semi-staged production. This instantly becomes a major event on the national orchestral map.

Institutional reinventions do not happen overnight, but an orchestra that used to be among the stodgiest in America is already becoming a far more interesting place.

Los Angeles heats up
Gustavo Dudamel, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s new maestro, is an intensely charismatic presence. Last year when he brought his Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra to Boston, the performance unleashed paroxysms of joy the likes of which I have never seen in Symphony Hall.

Of course Dudamel is still learning on the job, as any 28-year-old would be. Yet it is clear that he has the potential, at least in his new hometown, to reorient the woefully Eurocentric axis around which this art form revolves, and to bring classical music to entirely new audiences.

Under Esa-Pekka Salonen, its former director, the LA Philharmonic became the most progressive big orchestra around, especially in its celebration of new music and its attempt to install living composers not as peripheral figures who show up for the occasional bow but as central pillars in a community’s musical life. (The orchestra’s president, Deborah Borda, calls them “composer-heroes.’’) Now, the LA Philharmonic is leading the way in a new populist push to democratize the art and, one hopes, finally put to rest some common assumptions about who this music is for.

In that spirit, Dudamel’s first concert in Los Angeles as music director was not a fancy downtown affair but an expansive genre-hopping event at the Hollywood Bowl before a diverse audience of 18,000 people. The concert included an ensemble of 8- and 9-year-olds from the Philharmonic’s Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, a new initiative that is bringing music education to underserved urban neighborhoods, inspired by El Sistema, the revolutionary Venezuelan public music system from which Dudamel emerged.

A few days later, I caught Dudamel’s official opening night in Disney Hall. It began with an impressive new work by John Adams titled “City Noir,’’ a jazzy, gritty, sultry, and wonderfully inventive 35-minute symphony. (Adams, like Lindberg in New York, has been appointed to the LA Philharmonic’s new position of “creative chair.’’) Dudamel concluded with a gripping, confident performance of Mahler’s First Symphony, full of heat and visceral intensity if at times heavy-handed. Still, the players already seemed fired by his energy.

And what exactly will they be serving up this season in LA? Premieres of nine commissioned works are scheduled. The LA Philharmonic is also perfecting the art of the mid-season festival. Past seasons have seen “Minimalist Jukebox,’’ a sweeping survey of minimalism from seminal Steve Reich to Glenn Branca’s “Hallucination City’’ for 100 electric guitars; “Shadows of Stalin’’ a multifaceted take on state oppression and creative life, with chamber and orchestral concerts, films and symposia; and “Concrete Frequency,’’ a fresh look at the relationship between music and the urban environment, curated by David Robertson and tacking from brainy Boulez works to Japanese psychedelia to Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.’’

This year Dudamel will lead an “Americas and Americans’’ festival building North-South musical bridges, and Adams will curate “West Coast, Left Coast’’ a kaleidoscopic tour of the California creative spirit, with sound-video and photo installations and a dizzyingly eclectic slate of concerts ranging from jazz with beat poetry, to maverick avant-garde chamber music, to songs of Brian Wilson, to the Timpani Concerto No. 1 by California composer William Kraft.

Simply put, these festivals show what it means to program with energy and flair. And they are cumulatively transforming the definition of the modern orchestra. Borda explained that more tradition-minded subscribers can trade in their tickets for other dates. New audiences are taking their places. And the blasts of fresh air produced by this kind of fun, intelligent programming have a way of flowing through the entire institution.

Unfinished in Boston
Levine began his Boston tenure in 2004 with his own sustained shot of adrenaline at Symphony Hall, arriving with two-plus seasons of bold and visionary ideas. Things these days tend to be a lot sleepier. Levine says his focus has shifted to building the orchestra.

Week to week this season, there will surely be some wonderful concerts. Rarely played Martinu works dot the calendar in honor of the 50th anniversary of his death. I personally can’t wait to hear the premiere of Peter Lieberson’s “Farewell Songs,’’ a sequel to the soul-stirring “Neruda Songs’’ he wrote for his wife, the mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who died in 2006. In February Levine will also conduct a beautifully conceived program - Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, Strauss’s “Four Last Songs’’ with Fleming, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 - with deep musical and historical resonances.

But one can legitimately wonder whether there are enough bona fide artistic events like these with an urgent reason for being; whether the public is truly being led on any kind of sustained journey; whether there is enough richness, breadth, texture, or in a word, oxygen; whether once May arrives, the season will have amounted to more than the sum of its parts.

One of the year’s big artistic projects is a seemingly redundant cycle of Beethoven symphonies, music that is already ubiquitous at the BSO and that had been partially explored in the rich context of the Beethoven/Schoenberg series just three years ago. What’s more, when the BSO’s winter tour was canceled and more dates in Symphony Hall opened up, rather than use it as an opportunity to break fresh ground, the BSO instead scheduled repeats of two Beethoven programs.

We are, in other words, still waiting for Levine-the-bold-visionary and Levine-the-cautious-orchestra-builder to be present on the same season. Must it really be one or the other?

There is also more that can be done on a structural level at the BSO. The orchestra has a historic tradition of commissioning new works, but it should take the next step and bring on board its own composer-in-residence, to write music, of course, but also to help oversee its new-music programming, engage the community, and bolster the organization’s overall creative vision from deep within its ranks. Ideally it would be someone who also conducts, and whose tastes in contemporary music are more catholic than Levine’s own, which tend to favor a particularly thorny stream of musical modernism.

It’s also time to push further beyond the rigid structure of the Symphony Hall subscription season. As I’ve urged before, the BSO needs a proper off-site new music series where adventurous works can be played for niche audiences; it also needs its very own mid-season festivals that bring a more diverse audience more deeply inside the music.

The BSO could also create opportunities for the public to build sustained relationships with exceptional performers, inviting a brilliant figure like, say, the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard for a residency that would entail multiple performances with a common thread. A figure of Aimard’s creative depth might also design breathtakingly original chamber programs to be performed with players from the orchestra.

More could also be done in the area of extra-musical programming. The BSO sits in one of the intellectual capitals of the world and yet, on most weeks, you would not know it. Beyond the current pre-concert talks and post-concert receptions, there could be more cultural scaffolding built out around the concerts through lectures, panels, films, university collaborations, and connections to literature and the visual arts.

It’s good to have prodding from examples in other cities, but the BSO does not necessarily have to look far away for inspiration. This, after all, was the orchestra of Koussevitzky, who believed passionately in the wellspring of American creative art, and the importance of the music director’s mission to galvanize the community around his vision of music’s past, present, and future.

The BSO needs to return to the task of its own reinvention so boldly begun when Levine was the new maestro in the news six seasons ago. He has vastly improved the BSO’s playing, and for that the city owes him an enormous debt of gratitude. The hall looks good too. The windows in Symphony Hall have been beautifully restored. Now it is time to open them.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

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