Boston Symphony, Lepizig Gewandhaus release details of their Andris Nelsons “alliance”

March 1, 2017 at 12:00 pm

By David Wright

Christoph Wolff, Mark Volpe, Andris Nelsons, and Andreas Schulz this week at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

Christoph Wolff, Mark Volpe, Andris Nelsons, and Andreas Schulz this week at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Chris Lee

As they prepare to share the services of conductor Andris Nelsons, two of the world’s most prominent orchestras, the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) and the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig (GHO), have announced a five-year artistic and educational partnership that, for scope and duration, has few if any precedents in the history of symphony orchestras.

Leaders of the two institutions met with journalists this week and outlined a program consisting of residencies by each orchestra in the other’s city, shared and complementary programming, co-commissions of new works, and exchanges of players between the orchestras and of students between the orchestras’ educational arms, Tanglewood Music Center and Mendelssohn-Orchesterakademie.

This “alliance,” as the orchestras describe it, was spurred into existence by the appointment of Andris Nelsons, music director of the BSO since 2014 and under contract there till 2022, to succeed Riccardo Chailly as Gewandhauskapellmeister beginning in 2018.

Conductor Nelsons welcomed the new initiative with gusto.  “The Boston Symphony is 137 years old, so actually there is much Europe can learn from their tradition,” he said, earlier this week.  “Actually, the Boston Symphony Orchestra has so many traditions, the French, Germanic, Slavonic, and of course the culture of the Boston Pops, which is such a huge thing, and they will be able to share that with our wonderful colleagues and friends of Gewandhaus.  

“And Boston musicians,” he continued, “will experience playing in Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach was composing, and play also in the opera, which is part of Gewandhaus, as well as Gewandhaus concerts, so it’s a sharing that I think has great value.”

When Nelsons’ appointment was announced in Leipzig in September 2015, the mention of possible shared projects by the two orchestras was widely dismissed as a token gesture to Boston audiences for having to share their music director with another leading orchestra.

This week, however, the orchestras announced a schedule of shared composer commissions, orchestral residencies, and other events for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, with an ambitious vision for other activities stretching at least through 2022. 

Among them, a Boston residency by the GHO in October 2019 is to include a joint performance by the two orchestras in a large-scale symphonic work, as part of the BSO’s subscription season.

According to the orchestra managers, maestro Nelsons was interested in joint projects and educational programs even before his Leipzig appointment. 

“Andris talked to us,” said BSO managing director Mark Volpe, “about consolidating his European activity with one great orchestra—ours–and we discussed various possibilities.  Then, it was fortuitous that Riccardo was leaving the Gewandhaus, and Andreas [Schulz, general director of the GHO] and his team started discussing Andris as a possible successor.  Andris came to us and was very open about it, and some of the historic connections became clear.”

Indeed, musical connections between Boston and Leipzig proved easy to find.  Some early members of the BSO, and other leading musicians of the time such as composer and educator George Whitefield Chadwick, had studied at the Leipzig Conservatory, long affiliated with the GHO.  Boston’s Symphony Hall was modeled after the second Gewandhaus concert hall, which stood from 1884 to 1944.  Several early conductors of the BSO, including the legendary Arthur Nikisch and later Charles Munch, were Leipzig-trained or leaders of the GHO.

Following Nelsons’s Leipzig appointment, the conductor and orchestra managers set about converting the idea of collaboration from hopeful chatter to scheduled reality.  “We announced that Andris would take over the position of Riccardo in September 2015,” recalled GHO general manager Schulz, “and from that time on we have had, I would say, every three months a meeting, in Boston or in Leipzig, talking about this alliance. 

“From the beginning, we did not talk about just one season,” Schulz continued.  “We talked about a five-years partnership minimum, and a very strong relationship which would be in the end something unique in the orchestra world, and all based on the tradition of the BSO and the GHO.”

Those traditions are to be front and center at annual events called “Leipzig Week in Boston” and “Boston Week in Leipzig,” featuring special orchestral programs, chamber music concerts, exhibits and lectures that spotlight the other city’s musical culture.  The events in Boston are scheduled for February 2018 and November-December 2018, while Leipzig will toast Boston in June 2018 and again in August-September 2018.

The two orchestras will, of course, put each other’s cities on their tour schedules, with special events surrounding each orchestra’s performances in the other’s hall.

In charge of the meaning of it all will be a scholar with strong connections to both cities.  Christoph Wolff, Adams University Professor of Music at Harvard University and formerly director of the Bach Archive in Leipzig (2001-2013), will advise the project on historical and archival matters and coordinate lectures, exhibits, multimedia presentations, and panel discussions.

An active commissioning program will continue the two orchestras’ historic association with the leading composers of the day. 

Tracing its roots back to 1743, the Leipzig Gewandhaus has given first or early performances of works by Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms as well as present-day luminaries Henze, Kancheli, and Rihm. The BSO’s harvest of 20th-century masterpieces includes works of Stravinsky, Bartók, Copland, and Bernstein, continuing into the era of late Carter and Harbison.

Composers already commissioned through this initiative include Jörg Widmann of Germany, Andris Dzenitis of Latvia, and Americans Sean Shepherd and Sebastian Currier.

The two orchestras also have strong traditions of musical training, through the Tanglewood Music Center, the Leipzig Conservatory, and the latter’s 10-year-old joint program with the GHO, the Mendelssohn-Orchesterakademie.  A few instrumentalists, conductors and composers from these advanced programs will study in the other institute each year.  BSO manager Volpe says the musicians will have the welcome mat out.

“One of the great things about the last 20 years,” said Volpe, “is that our BSO players really own the Music Center programming, especially the orchestral training.  A lot of our players are actually engaged in mentoring and coaching and all of that, and the fact that this alliance has a pedagogical element with the Mendelssohn Academy appealed to them.”

Student exchanges are of course nothing new, but it is rare for symphony orchestras to exchange players with each other.  Under the new alliance, two or three players from each orchestra would be selected each year to play with the other one for all or part of a season.

Asked to recall previous occasions when players were exchanged in their orchestras, GHO manager Schulz couldn’t think of any, and the BSO’s Volpe remembered just one instance of former music director Seiji Ozawa sharing a few players with an orchestra in Japan.

BSO maestro Nelsons warmed up especially to this subject.  “It’s the quality of the music making, but it’s equally the human relationship and the chemistry of the musicians working together,” he said.  “So from one side is this historical aspect, from the other side there is the excitement of musicians from both orchestras, which they expressed from the very beginning.  The musicians are very eager, very keen to explore the other orchestra’s tradition and the culture.”

Volpe agreed that musician-to-musician relationships should flourish under the new initiative. “When we go on tour, we finish the concert and then they’re in a bar, sitting with the local musicians, but it’s superficial.  They have a few drinks, talk about what their musical lives are like, then we get on a plane and fly to Paris the next day. 

“But this program is a five-year deal,” he added.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra performs works by Gunther Schuller, Mozart, and Beethoven 8 p.m. Wednesday and works by Ravel, George Benjamin, and Berlioz 8 p.m. Thursday at Carnegie Hall.; 212-247-7800.

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