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The Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2020-2021

Renee Fleming (Andrew Eccles / Decca), Gil Shaham (courtesy of the artist), Andris Nelsons (Marco Borggreve), Lorelei Ensemble (courtesy of the ensemble), Thomas Wilkins (Stu Rosner / BSO), Mitsuko Uchida (Justin Pumfrey / Decca)
Renee Fleming (Andrew Eccles / Decca), Gil Shaham (courtesy of the artist), Andris Nelsons (Marco Borggreve), Lorelei Ensemble (courtesy of the ensemble), Thomas Wilkins (Stu Rosner / BSO), Mitsuko Uchida (Justin Pumfrey / Decca)

The BSO has announced ambitious plans for the coming concert season, featuring a complete Beethoven symphony cycle, works by 14 composers of our time, and fascinating multi-media programs.
It's as true now as when Alexander Pope wrote it in 1733: "Hope springs eternal in the human breast." If that hope is more challenged than usual for the time being, the Boston Symphony Orchestra provides some degree of fuel to turn that flickering flame into a fire with its 2020-2021 season.

The announcement makes abundantly clear that the current pandemic lends all of these plans an air of uncertainty, and the organization is prepared to adjust programs and ticket purchases in response to any necessary changes. And even if dates, programs, and guest artists have to be changed, the prospect of what might be at least offers a lift to those who dearly miss the experience of hearing live concerts by this world-class orchestra. Beyond that, the BSO is offering season discounts and complimentary single performances to Boston's essential workers (with details to be announced in the coming months).

As for the program lineup, here are some highlights:

The season begins with a concentrated two-and-a-half week celebratory immersion in Beethoven's nine symphonies (Sep. 17-Oct. 3). It's the first time the BSO has performed all nine of these cornerstone works in order on consecutive programs since Serge Koussevitzky did so in 1927. It also hearkens back to the origins of the orchestra itself, when all nine symphonies were performed in the inaugural season of 1881-82.

New music is also a foundational aspect of the BSO's identity, and the 2020-2021 season features 14 composers of our time. Compared to some recent seasons, the number of premieres is low (one world premiere and one American premiere). But the range of composers represented is vast, from Kevin Puts (The Brightness of Light, featuring soprano Renée Fleming and baritone Rod Gilfry, Oct. 8-10) to Sofia Gubaidulina (Prologue, Oct. 15-20), and Bernard Rands (Symphonic Fantasy, Feb. 25-Mar. 2) to Julia Adolphe (new work, Mar. 25-26 and Apr. 16-17), and many more.

Of special note is Her Story (Nov. 5-7), a BSO co-commission multi-media piece by Julia Wolfe, featuring Boston's Lorelei Ensemble and written to commemorate the centenary of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited the federal goverment from barring citizens from voting because of their gender. Performed immediately following Election Day 2020, the program is led by Giancarlo Guerrero and also includes one of the most popular of modern orchestral works, in its first BSO performances, Henryk Górecki's Symphony No. 3, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, with soprano Iwona Sobotka.

The multi-media aspect of Her Story is not unique in the 2020-2021 season. The aforementioned piece by Kevin Puts, The Brightness of Light, is based on the story of Georgia O'Keeffe and features her artwork and that of her husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz. The production reunites the soloists and production from the world premiere at Tanglewood in 2019.

And the season also includes a piece that, remarkably, was designed by composer Alexander Scriabin as a multi-media experience in 1910. Scriabin, who was gifted/afflicted with synesthesia, created Prometheus, The Poem of Fire (Apr. 29-May 1) with a newly invented instrument he called a "color organ," essentially bringing a synesthetic experience to the rest of us. For the BSO, a lighting design will be realized by Anna Gawboy and Justin Townsend.

It wouldn't be an Andris Nelsons-led season without a healthy dose of Shostakovich, as the BSO moves into the last stages of its landmark project of performance and recordings of all of the Soviet composer's symphonies and other selected works. For 2020-2021, the main event is Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Apr. 6-10), the opera that incurred the wrath of Stalin and put Shostakovich's very life into danger. Nelsons also conducts the Symphony No. 13, Babi Yar (Oct. 15-20), featuring bass Ildar Abdrazakov and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and the Symphony No. 3, The First of May, also featuring the TFC and, in works by Mozart and Pärt, violinist Gil Shaham.

Andris Nelsons also continues another series focused on a favorite composer, Richard Strauss, including a program fully dedicated to the composer's works (Mar. 18-23). Soprano Lise Davidsen sings the Four Last Songs, and Nelsons also conducts Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, and the Symphonic Fantasy from Die Frau ohne Schatten.

Thomas Wilkins, the BSO's Artistic Advisor for Education and Community Engagement, leads his second BSO subscription program in January (28-30), with two works by Duke Ellington, George Gershwin's Second Rhapsody, and William Grant Still's Symphony No. 4, Autochthonous.

Thomas Adès, BSO Artistic Partner, will be in Boston for one program (Feb. 11-13), when he joins forces again with pianist Kirill Gerstein. On the program is Adès's Concerto for Piano, the wildly successful BSO commission that received its world premiere only last spring, as well as Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand and works by Prokofiev and Janácek.

Another collaborative relationship begins, this time with pianist Mitsuko Uchida, in April (22-27) with Beethoven's Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 3, the first part of a planned three-year cycle of performances of all of the composer's piano concertos.

Anna Rakitina, the orchestra's Assistant Conductor, makes her subscription series debut with a program that includes Adès's Polaris, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, with soloist Inon Barnatan (also in his subscription debut), and Elgar's Enigma Variations.

Finally, after seeing its official 50th birthday celebration cancelled this spring, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, led by BSO Choral Conductor James Burton, will be featured in several works for its Golden Anniversary season, including Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, Shostakovich's Symphonies Nos. 3 (and, on the same program, Haydn's Te Deum) and 13 and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Holst's The Planets (Jan. 7-12), and Scriabin's Prometheus, The Poem of Fire.

For full details of the 2020-2021 season, visit the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Brian McCreath is the Director of Production for CRB.