What can and should a major orchestra be in the 21st century? What debt do such ensembles owe the cities in which they reside? What debt do they owe to history? What role might they play in fostering a deeper understanding of society’s wounds?
These are the kinds of questions the Boston Symphony Orchestra must continue asking itself, now with a new depth and rigor, as it searches for its next president and CEO. The orchestra’s current festival — “Voices of Loss, Reckoning, and Hope” — is offering a glimpse of what might be possible.
With three different full-orchestra programs and a slew of ancillary events all devoted to exploring the intersection of music, history, legacies of exclusion, and the promise of change, this festival is the BSO’s most concentrated and ambitious attempt at socially engaged programming in well over a decade. So far it’s also been full of rarely heard, intriguing, and often flat-out excellent music.
The bar the BSO has set for itself in this area has been, let’s be honest, fairly low. Its programmatic focus has largely been elsewhere. Even this mini-festival’s existence, the orchestra has freely admitted, is partly the result of previous one-off programs having been canceled by the pandemic and now being rescheduled as a group.
No matter. A new formula has now been attempted, and the results speak for themselves. Future seasons in Symphony Hall can and must involve similarly ambitious events that angle music and its history outward toward a reckoning with society’s profound rifts, and toward the possibilities for healing. They should also demonstrate, as this festival does, that such lofty goals need not be in tension with artistically meaningful experiences.
Last week’s revelatory program, for instance, was anchored by Uri Caine’s “Passion of Octavius Catto,” at once a moving and musically satisfying experience as well as a brilliant example of the art form’s ability to rescue and reanimate a worthy yet forgotten 19th-century life otherwise lost to history. This week’s concerts, meanwhile, draw attention to a more contemporary manifestation of age-old prejudice: “the near-certainty [for Black Americans] of being accosted by public authority in one form or another,” as George E. Lewis’s program note puts it.
Both the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Anthony Davis, and the New York Philharmonic’s principal clarinetist Anthony McGill, have experienced the terror of being pulled over by armed police for the offense of “driving while black.” (McGill was listening to classical music on the radio at the time, one of several ways, he recently recounted , the art form has saved him.) Davis explored the inner reverberations of his encounter in a 2007 work, “You Have the Right to Remain Silent,” performed on Thursday night by McGill and the BSO under the baton of Thomas Wilkins.
It is an absorbing four-movement work, and in this account its disparate styles and sonorities (including jazz and dissonant multiphonics) felt united both by the music’s powerful emotional throughline and by the technically virtuosic and deeply felt lyricism of McGill’s playing (he was partnered at key moments by Earl Howard on Kurzweil synthesizer). This is a concerto in all but name, though one in which the traditional mythic narrative of the individual versus the collective is poignantly recast through the modern prism of racial prejudice.
The night opened with three movements from “The Montgomery Variations” by Margaret Bonds, a series of variations on the spiritual “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,” cumulatively paying tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. while evoking key moments of Black civil rights activism from the mid-20th century. In Wilkins’s deftly shaped performance, however, these melodically rich movements added up to far more than the sum of their parts. They also made one eager to hear the work as a whole.
Closing the night was a riveting account of William Dawson’s “Negro Folk Symphony,” a strikingly vibrant and fully realized score premiered in 1934 by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Rich in historical allusions and bristling with melodic and rhythmic life, Dawson’s work was inspired by Dvorak’s insistence that America’s national art music should be assembled (like Czech music) from the building blocks of its own folk traditions, especially Black spirituals. But clearly no cautious epigone, Dawson responded to Dvorak’s charge with results that are entirely his own.
All told, it was an invigorating night made still more memorable by the excitement of artistic discovery. The evening’s festive air, however, was somewhat dampened by the dishearteningly low audience turnout. Sunday’s performance of the festival’s first program was also very sparsely attended.
Given the quality of these concerts, it is deeply unfortunate, though not altogether surprising, that the orchestra does not yet have a vast audience ready and waiting for programming of this kind. How could it, given the makeup of recent seasons? Take Dawson as just one example. Not only had the BSO never before played this symphony, it had never before played a single note of his music.
But the orchestra must not be deterred by these empty seats — they should in fact be seen as reinforcing one original impetus behind the festival as a whole, an acknowledgment of the legacies of exclusion that have all but erased the accomplishments of composers such as Bonds and Dawson from the broader cultural memory.
The empty seats might also be taken as a challenge to the BSO, a call to deepen its own engagement with the broader communities it is trying to reach. Putting festivals like this on stage is clearly just one part of the slow, sedulous work of relationship building and repair. The latter is a project that must be sustained year-round, not just on weeks when the orchestra has a thematically relevant offering on its stage. There remains a lot of work to be done in this area. In the meantime, on its own terms, this festival already stands as an artistic highlight of recent seasons.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Thomas Wilkins, conductor
At Symphony Hall, Thursday night