Warmed Over Gala Fare Stirs Hunger For Fresh Entrees

Victor Wooten co-composed 'The Bass Whisperer' with Conni Ellisor. He plays the world premiere with the Nashville Symphony.  (Photo by Steve Parker; collaborator Ellisor, who's also a violinist, is pictured below.)
Victor Wooten plays ‘The Bass Whisperer,’ which he and Conni Ellisor co-composed, to open Nashville’s classical season.
(Photo by Steve Parker; Wooten’s collaborator Ellisor, who’s also a violinist, is pictured below.)
By Barbara Jepson

The archives of prestigious orchestras contain telling details about opening-night programs during the last century. The 1919 inaugural concert of French maestro Pierre Monteux at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, for example, included a note at the bottom of the program beseeching “ladies of the audience….not to put on hats before the end of the number” to avoid obstructing views of the performance. But most importantly, three of the four works on Monteux’s program — Franck’s symphonic poem The Accursed Huntsman, Albeniz’s Catalonia, and Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun — had been completed within the prior 26 years. How many opening-night concerts at symphony orchestras today offer the same degree of freshness in their programming?

1960 gala: 'Candide' Overture, Harris Symphony No. 3, Beethoven Violin Concerto with Isaac Stern. 'Daphnis et Chloé' Suite No.2
1960 gala: Bernstein conducted Bernstein, Roy Harris, Ravel, Stern played Beethoven.

Interestingly enough, so-called gala openings at many of the most prestigious U.S. orchestras did not occur until after 1950.  At the New York Philharmonic, the first opening benefit took place in 1960, early in the tenure of Leonard Bernstein; at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in 1986 under Sir Georg Solti; at the Philadelphia Orchestra, in 1987 under Riccardo Muti; at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to kick-off its centennial season of 1981-82.

As the 2014-15 season gets underway in North America, a perusal of repertoire scheduled by 25 mostly major orchestras for their opening nights, whether black-tie galas or the first salvos in regular classical subscription series, reveals that too often they deliver tried-and-true traditional repertoire or gala hors d’oeuvres, when some listeners (and most critics) crave something at once meaty and fresh.

In N.C, Llewellyn and Marsalis take on Glazunov, Schulhoff works for saxophone.
In N.C, Llewellyn & Marsalis to offer Glazunov, Schulhoff sax works.

Yet there are several intriguing departures from the norm and some noteworthy inaugural events this fall. In Montreal, music director Kent Nagano recently led a complete performance of Berlioz’ sprawling Roméo et Juliette, which usually shows up in excerpts. French choral works are one of Nagano’s specialties, and  he deserves credit for avoiding the predictable.

On Sept. 18-20, the season opener of the North Carolina Symphony under music director Grant Llewellyn offers appealing less familiar works from the 1930s: virtuoso Branford Marsalis in Glazunov’s Saxophone Concerto and Hot Sonate for alto saxophone and chamber ensemble by Holocaust victim Erwin Schulhoff.

Also on Sept. 18-20, the Nashville Symphony opens its classical season under Giancarlo Guerrero with an all-American program of John Adams’s The Chairman Dances; Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait; Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 2 (Romantic); and the world premiere of The Bass Whisperer: Concerto for Electric Bass and Orchestra, co-composed by Conni Ellisor and guest soloist Victor Wooten. Incidentally, Nashville is the only one of the 25 orchestras surveyed to open with a world premiere.

For high-octane glamour, it’s hard to beat Estonian maestro Andris Nelsons’s sold-out inaugural concert with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on Sept. 27. Guest soloists are German tenor Jonas Kaufmann and Estonian soprano Kristine Opolais (the conductor’s wife) in a program of excerpts from operas by Wagner, Mascagni, and others that concludes with Respighi’s Pines of Rome. Given the caliber of the soloists, the hors d’oeuvres may pack more wallop than usual, and perhaps hint at possible operas-in-concert to come.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada is the first Latino music director at the Houston Symphony. (Werner Kmetitsch)
Orozco-Estrada is Houston’s new maestro. (Werner Kmetitsch)

Also newsworthy, for reasons apart from repertoire, was the Sept. 13 inaugural concert of Houston Symphony Orchestra music director Andrés Orozco-Estrada, the latest South American to take the helm of an orchestra in the American southwest. A gala program on Sept. 20 featuring soprano Renée Fleming will herald the opening of San Antonio’s $203 million Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, new construction that nonetheless preserves the historic facades of the 1926 Municipal Auditorium. And in the trivia department, Joshua Bell was the most frequently engaged guest soloist of the 25 season kick-off programs surveyed, appearing with the Albany Symphony, National Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, and Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

Alan Gilbert's season openers have included novel fare. (Chris Lee)
Alan Gilbert’s season openers have included novel fare. (Chris Lee)

One of the best gala opening programs in recent memory was the 2009 inaugural gala of Alan Gilbert at the New York Philharmonic. It began with Expo, a short piece by Magnus Lindberg, just beginning his three-year term there as composer-in-residence. Rather than being a mere sop to critics, the inclusion of Expo signaled a long-term commitment to Lindberg’s music. Next up was Fleming as guest soloist in Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi, a less frequently encountered but substantial masterwork. The evening closed with Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, which showed how Gilbert had tweaked the Philharmonic sound, creating a warmer, more relaxed string tone compared to the leaner, sometimes edgier, brilliance of his predecessor, Lorin Maazel. The gala had all the requisite glamour, but the sense of occasion had more to do with the music than celebrity presences and formal attire. That also was true at Seiji Ozawa’s inaugural gala in Boston in 1973, when he presented The Damnation of Faust by Berlioz with an admirable cast of singers, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and the Boston Boy Choir.

The U.S. premiere of Unsuk Chin clarinet concerto is set for the NY Phil.
The U.S. premiere of Unsuk Chin’s clarinet concerto is set for NYC.

More recent New York Philharmonic galas have veered towards the conventional, though last year’s opening included a vibrant performance of Osvaldo Golijov’s lively Azul for cello and orchestra (2006), performed by Yo-Yo Ma and other guest artists. This year, the Philharmonic scheduled its gala, La Dolce Vita, a tribute to Italian film scores, at the start of its Art of the Score week. However, the orchestra is billing its first subscription concert on Sept. 23 as “opening night,” as if trying to create some distance between the two events. In this, Gilbert and Gustavo Dudamel at the Los Angeles Philharmonic appear to be on common ground. Both orchestras present film-themed galas, then pair Mahler symphonies with U.S. premieres – Unsuk Chin’s Clarinet Concerto in New York; David Lang’s man made, a percussion concerto, in L.A.

For those orchestras currently opening their seasons with gala benefits, why not reschedule them elsewhere during the season, freeing music directors to make “opening night at the symphony” a more musically momentous occasion? How about Golijov’s colorful, Latin-inflected The Passion According to St. Mark (2000)? An all-Barber evening including the violin concerto and scenes from his opera Vanessa?  Or John Luther Adams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Become Ocean (2013) coupled with Debussy’s La Mer, following the example of Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot during last year’s final, gloriously original “Spring for Music” series at Carnegie Hall?  The possibilities are as rich and varied as the repertoire itself.

Barbara Jepson is a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal’s Leisure & Arts pages. Her articles have also appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Arts and Leisure, Opera News, and other national publications.

Conni Ellisor's new concerto for electric bass and orchestra, 'The Bass Whisperer,' opens the Nashville Symphony's 2014-15 classical season. (ellisormusic.com)
Conni Ellisor, active in both the classical and jazz realm, co-wrote ‘The Bass Whisperer,’ a Nashville Symphony commission.(Photo from ellisormusic.com; co-composer and electric bass soloist Victor Wooten is pictured above.)