BSO program rekindles a debate for the ages
By Geoff Edgers, Boston Globe (February 12, 2006)
Not everyone will come. That much is clear as the Boston Symphony Orchestra plunges into a concert program this week that is dominated by the work of the late composer Arnold Schoenberg. Hundreds of subscribers have already turned in their tickets, opting for concerts with more traditional repertoire. Others are thrilled, eager to celebrate the work of a composer so often criticized for being inaccessible.
Over the next two years, James Levine, the BSO's music director, is leading the orchestra in 10 programs that link Schoenberg with his more popular German counterpart, Ludwig van Beethoven. Levine hopes to convert more symphony-goers to the music he loves. And this week brings what is probably the toughest sell in Levine's lineup: an all-Schoenberg program that ranges from the challenging 12-tone composition "Variations" to an earlier work,"Pelleas und Melisande," that the BSO describes as an "orchestral tone poem in the vein of Liszt and Strauss."
The Schoenberg programming has had a polarizing effect, pitting the traditionalists, who would prefer their Beethoven served with a dose of Mozart, against the modernists, a group made up of musicians, students, critics, and subscribers who say they're inspired by Levine's commitment to a composer who, while long respected, has never been a hot ticket.
So far, subscribers have traded in 745 tickets for the four all-Schoenberg performances that kick off Thursday night; that's twice the norm. Kris Sessa, 57, a music librarian at Boston University, is among them. "I just don't enjoy his music," Sessa says.
"Art has never been a popularity contest," Levine says, a phrase he uses often.
The BSO's music director doesn't dismiss the unhappy subscribers.
"I find it always sad when there's something that means a lot to me in music and there are people who can't get the exposure to it ever to understand it, let alone love it," says Levine.
Balance. During Levine's tenure, it's a term that's been tossed around Symphony Hall like a beach ball in the Fenway Park bleachers. To the BSO's leaders, it means finding a proper meeting place between market share and artistic ambition. Crowd pleasers such as Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis," performed last month to packed halls, make up for the empty seats at other concerts.
Levine's pairing of Beethoven with Schoenberg offers a welcome box-office balance for the BSO, even if the music director's motivation is to show the artistic connections between the composers.
"This is entirely driven by two composers who changed music," says Mark Volpe, the BSO's managing director. "That being said, if Jim came to me and said I need Schoenberg and Stockhausen, or Schoenberg and Milton Babbitt, I probably would have had a different willingness for proceeding with the plan."
Around the world, Levine's Schoenberg/Beethoven programming has been watched closely by other conductors -- and admired.
"It's courageous," says Paavo Jarvi, music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. "It is so mind-boggling that Schoenberg at the beginning of the 21st century is somehow considered unprogrammable or difficult to present to audiences. Certainly there is a challenge, but at the same time it is something for which somebody has to take a leadership role."
The Schoenberg focus has also mobilized some of the local music community. On Feb. 27, the Harvard University Department of Music, the university's Center for European Studies, and the BSO are holding an all-day conference, ''Beethoven, Schoenberg, and the Legacy of the Ninth," which will include Levine. The Goethe-Institut Boston has been holding ''Evenings With Schoenberg" each Wednesday in February, which pair salon-style talks with the composer's complete solo piano music played by New England Conservatory students.
Stephen Olson, an NEC pianist who will play this Wednesday, will be one of the many college-age Levine followers heading to Symphony Hall.
"I think it's predictable that the Boston Symphony might lose some of that older crowd," he said. "But I think if James Levine keeps up this programming he will have gained a younger audience that wasn't there before."
It's already happening. While the BSO's subscription sales are down this season by 2.5 percent compared to last season, BSO officials say they've more than compensated with single-ticket sales, which are up more than 7 percent, from 38,242 last year to 41,246. In addition, sales of the BSO's college card -- which allows students to attend up to 14 concerts a season for $25 total, provided tickets are available -- are up, from 1,800 cardholders to 2,070. BSO surveys show that the average age of concertgoers is 49, two years younger than when Levine arrived.
"Levine . . . is planting seeds," says Leslie Epstein, a Boston University English professor who has been working on an opera based on Schoenberg's life with MIT composer Tod Machover. "I think he well knows the plants may come up stunted for a while. It's rather like an elderly person who plants a seed of a tree he knows he may never sit under, but so others may enjoy the shade."...
Hmmmm. Can there be some Schoenberg on the Cincinnati Symphony's horizon?