Commitment and Continuity from the BSO and Nelsons

Oct 5, 2020

Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra have announced an extension of their collaboration and an expansion of projects that have made this one of the most dynamic eras in the orchestra's history.

The new agreement between Nelsons and the BSO takes his contract through August of 2025, with an "evergreen clause" that demonstrates the desire on both sides of the equation to continue well beyond that. In addition, the BSO and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (GHO), which Nelsons also leads, are extending their unique alliance through 2025 as well.

The specifics of the agreement carry on the same basic parameters that have defined Nelsons's activities with the BSO up to this point:

  • a minimum of 12 weeks each season at Symphony Hall
  • a minimum of 2 weekends of programs each summer at Tanglewood
  • continued involvement in Tanglewood Music Center and Tanglewood Learning Institute activities, and
  • continued international tours and performances at Carnegie Hall in New York during each year of Nelsons's tenure.

The announcement is a reassurance that, even in the face of the unprecedented pandemic that has so completely altered the live concert landscape, the BSO is planning its future with a continuity of artistic leadership, whatever form live performance takes as the current circumstances run their course. And, completely independent of the pandemic, it puts to rest any question of the state of the collaboration as it enters its seventh year.

Like any cliché, the idea of a "Seven-Year Itch" is rooted in some form of truth, or at least pattern. In the case of Nelsons and the BSO, it has been fair to wonder where things would go following this disrupted season, the seventh of the conductor's tenure. Beyond that cliché, there are a few specific factors that have created a sort of fork in the road.

First, the signature project of the BSO in the Andris Nelsons era is the performance and recording of Shostakovich's symphonies. It has been a success on any quantifiable level, and, importantly, it has entered its final chapters as originally planned. One could think that, after the final couple of symphonies in the series are recorded, there is an opportunity to celebrate success and move on.

Today's announcement, though, reaffirms the BSO's and Nelsons's commitment to the project by expanding it, with plans to not only perform and record the opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (which had already been planned) but to also add the Soviet composer's piano, violin, and cello concertos, as well as the Jazz Suites and other works, to the series.

Second, the end of the initial lifespan of the alliance between the GHO and the BSO was on the immediate horizon. It's been clear that Nelsons - a conductor who thrives on energetic, deep relationships - has enjoyed bringing these two orchestras into a common orbit. But the alliance is logistically complicated and, presumably, somewhat expensive. Again, it would not have been unreasonable to imagine the project reaching its conclusion and the parties all going their separate ways after a round of toasts to their shared success.

But now the alliance has been extended along with Nelsons's BSO contract. There is a recommitment to the arrangement, now with a focus on music by Richard Strauss through "an extensive and integrated media and residency project."

Finally, last January (pre-pandemic in the U.S.), BSO President and CEO Mark Volpe announced his departure, scheduled at that time for February of 2021. Whether that remains the time of Volpe's exit or not (one could imagine it being slightly delayed in the face of pandemic challenges), it's a significant development for Nelsons. Volpe was instrumental in bringing Nelsons to Boston, and in interviews, Nelsons consistently refers to the deep and rewarding working relationships among the leadership team that runs the BSO. Would the departure of the cornerstone of that team affect Nelsons's long-term commitment to the BSO?

Apparently not. Volpe made clear in January that he's actually stayed on slightly longer than he had originally planned, years ago. So his departure doesn't indicate anything other than an expected transition. That Nelsons has now made a longer-term commitment to Boston is a sign that he has confidence in the leadership that remains at Symphony Hall and their wisdom in charting a path forward with Volpe's successor.

What this all means for us in the audience is, to me, good news. At a time when disruption faces each of us at the beginning of every day, the Boston Symphony, one of the largest and most significant cultural institutions in the commonwealth and the country, is looking forward with stability. While it will apparently be some time before we can all witness the artistic results of that stability in person within the confines of Symphony Hall, it's at least one less point of uncertainty in a turbulent world.