Shostakovich and Shakespeare don’t often get paired together. But the Boston Symphony Orchestra, announcing its second season for music director Andris Nelsons, plans to do just that during the 2015-16 season.
A jolt to programming will not be the only sign of Nelsons’ positive impact on the orchestra. A five-release recording deal with Deutsche Grammophon, a rarity for any orchestra, and the announcement of another tour, this one to festivals during spring 2016 in Germany, Austria and Luxembourg, send a strong message to the orchestra and its supporters.
Other highlights from the 2015-'16 season, which will see Nelsons lead 13 weeks of programs, includes premieres by Giya Kancheli, Hans Abrahamsen, Sebastian Currier and George Tsontakis; a staging of Strauss’s Elektra, which the orchestra will also perform in October during a three-concert set at Carnegie Hall; a long list of familiar guests that include Evgeny Kissin (for opening night), Renée Fleming, Murray Perahia, Yefim Bronfman, Gil Shaham, Christoph von Dohnányi and Bernard Haitink (celebrating his 45th anniversary with the orchestra); and BSO debuts including soprano Barbara Hannigan, violinist Alina Ibragimova and pianist Javier Perianes.
Commemorating the 400th year after Shakespeare’s death, the BSO devotes three weeks to programs under Nelsons. Works from Weber, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn and Prokofiev are coupled with Tsontakis’ Sonnets, a commission for English hornist Robert Sheena, and the American premiere of Abrahamsen’s "let me tell you," inspired by Hamlet. The BSO will also bring back Hans Werner Henze’s Symphony No. 8, inspired by "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," a 1993 orchestra commission.
Harvard professor Thomas Kelly leads an Insights Series, running concurrently with the performances, including Shakespeare on film and in chamber music, as well as discussions with performers, composers and librettists. The Shakespeare programs and events run from Jan. 23 through Feb. 14.
Besides Haitink’s anniversary commemoration, the orchestra also notes the centenary of Henri Dutilleux’s birth with three separate programs, including Nelsons’ conducting the French composer’s "Métaboles" in April. François-Xavier Roth conducts Dutilleux’s "Le Temps L’Horloge" in January, and Charles Dutoit rounds out the remembrance with "Timbres, Espace, Mouvement" in February.
Soloists taken from the BSO ranks also feature prominently in the upcoming season. In addition to Sheena, principals Elizabeth Rowe (flute) and Jessica Zhou (harp) perform Mozart’s double concerto in January, with concertmaster Malcolm Lowe and principal viola Steven Ansell taking center stage for Mozart’s "Sinfonia Concertante."
Audiences attending BSO programs this week will hear Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony; that’s just the beginning of the extensive performing and recording cycle that will have the orchestra take an in-depth look the Russian composer’s symphonic works.
The partnership with Deutsche Grammophon will result in five live performance albums. The first, due for release this summer, will include two works on this week’s program: the Tenth, and the passacaglia from the opera "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk." Subsequent performances will focus on the middle symphonies, written at the height of Shostakovich’s tense relationship with Stalin and his censors.
Nelsons, who was born in 1978 in Latvia when it was still part of the Soviet Union, will spearhead the recording project, which is being called "Shostakovich Under Stalin’s Shadow." The programming marks a seismic shift away from direction of former BSO music director James Levine, who avoided the Russian composer entirely.
Joining Haitink, von Dohnányi, Roth and Dutoit is the BSO’s usual stellar roster of guest conductors. Sir Herbert Blomstedt returns with pianist Garrick Ohlsson in March for an all-Beethoven program. Stephane Dénève pairs with Gil Shaham for John Williams’ concerto, also in March. Vladimir Jurowski and promising BSO assistant conductor Ken-David Masur also return.
Additional soloists include Paul Lewis, who will perform Beethoven’s third piano concerto with the orchestra at Symphony Hall and at Carnegie Hall, pianist Nikolai Lugansky and violinist Isabelle Faust. Vocalists, in addition to Fleming, include Kristine Opolais, Christine Goerke (for Elektra), Paul Groves and Francois Piolino.
In its latest series of outreach programs intended to revitalize its audience, Casual Fridays, three weeks in early 2016, will encourage new concert-goers with social media innovations, preconcert discussions with conductors and soloists, and post-concert hangouts. Successful ongoing projects like reduced prices for under-40s, college and high school discounts, and rush tickets will continue.
Kissin returns to Symphony Hall for the season opener on Oct. 1, performing Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto, with Nelsons on the podium. The all-Russian opening night also includes Rachmaninov’s "Symphonic Dances," and Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony.
A complete listing can be found on the BSO's website. Subscriptions to the 2105-'16 season are available now and single tickets go on sale Aug. 3.
Keith Powers, former music critic at the Boston Herald, now freelances for a number of newspapers and magazines. Follow him on Twitter at @PowersKeith.