How unsettling this past year has been. Musical venues finally reopened for live performances (which is what music lovers were craving, weren’t we?), but few events were sold out, and wonderful as it was to hear the sound of live music again (there’s nothing like it), nagging doubts remained, despite all the precautions, about being in public places, too close to people we didn’t necessarily know. Eager as I was to go out last year, I heard most of my “live” events at home on my computer.
Many of the performance venues themselves were unfamiliar, and sometimes unsatisfying. The one Celebrity Series concert I attended at the GBH Calderwood Studio had uncomfortable folding chairs and slightly dead acoustics. Boston Lyric Opera at a Seaport District rock venue was hard to get to and parking was expensive (is there a single handicapped parking space in the entire district?). And it was harshly over-amplified — the nemesis of live classical music or opera.
At this moment, it’s hard to predict the immediate future of live performances. If something in the following list tempts you, please check first to make sure it’s actually taking place. Many programs will also be livestreamed. But I live in hope, so here’s a list of performances (mainly live) that I hope will keep us warm, body and soul, before spring.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA | VISITING CELEBRITIES | OTHER ORCHESTRAL MUSIC | OPERA | CONTEMPORARY MUSIC | CHORAL MUSIC | EARLY MUSIC | CHAMBER MUSIC
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
The BSO, one of the world’s leading instrumental ensembles, has to head any list of coming attractions in Boston. I don’t see much in the way of an artistic statement by its music director Andris Nelsons, but there isn’t a single program coming up that doesn’t hold some interest.
I’m especially looking forward to the programs with such guest conductors as the venerable Herbert Blomstedt and Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša; works by three outstanding contemporary composers who all happen to be women: Augusta Read Thomas, Kaija Saariaho and Unsuk Chin; and such stellar soloists as pianists Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Yefim Bronfman and Igor Levit, violinists Hilary Hahn, Baiba Skride and Leonidas Kavakos.
But at the very top of my list is the concert conducted by BSO resident “artistic partner” (and composer/conductor/pianist/writer) Thomas Adès (Jan. 27-29), who will be leading the brilliant pianist Kirill Gerstein in a much-desired repeat performance of Adès’ 2019 Piano Concerto (a piece which left me partially puzzled at its premiere but which I was most eager to hear again), as well as Ravel’s scintillating Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Adès will begin with what has unfortunately become a relatively rare performance of one of the greatest 20th-century orchestral pieces, Alban Berg’s “Three Pieces for Orchestra” (last played by the BSO under James Levine in 2010) and will close with Ravel’s more familiar — and diabolical — “La Valse.”
Vying for first place would have to be the concert performance of Berg’s “Wozzeck,” a major landmark of 20th-century opera and surely the opera event of the season. BSO music director Andris Nelsons will conduct this tragic masterpiece with a cast that includes such luminaries as Bo Skovhus (in the title role), Christine Goerke and Sasha Cook (March 10 and 12).
Perhaps the live performance I loved most in 2021 was Wendy Putnam’s Concord Chamber Music Society’s world premiere of Yehudi Wyner’s “Concord 7,” his riveting and ravishing septet for piano, winds and strings. The players, except for Wyner himself on the piano, were all members of the BSO. Two of them (flutist Elizabeth Rowe and oboist John Ferrillo — among my favorite BSO musicians) are also members of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, which will be reprising Wyner’s new work on a program with the seldom heard Octet for Winds and Strings by Paul Hindemith (one of Wyner’s teachers) and one of Mozart’s greatest chamber works, his String Quintet in D.
Not all of the world’s best musicians are from the Boston area (though at times, it seems so). We are indebted to the Celebrity Series of Boston for importing some of them. I don’t feel comfortable recommending musicians I’ve never heard before, but check the Celebrity Series website to see if you’re tempted to experiment.
One of the most eagerly anticipated classical events of the entire season is the return to Boston of Russian piano virtuoso Daniil Trifonov — a concert postponed from last November after Trifonov injured his elbow. His elbow has presumably recovered, given the demands of a program that includes works by Szymanowski, Debussy, Prokofiev and Brahms (Symphony Hall, Feb. 4). Another hot ticket will be a Beethoven evening with the superstar trio of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Emanuel Ax and violinist Leonidas Kavakos (Symphony Hall, March 9).
And German baritone Benjamin Appl (whom I haven’t heard before) and pianist James Baillieu are doing Schubert’s greatest song-cycle, “Winterreise” (Winter’s Journey), a work always worth investigating (Longy’s Pickman Hall and streaming, Jan. 26). There’s also an evening called “American Stories” with the exciting young bass-baritone Dashon Burton (Longy’s Pickman Hall and streaming, Jan. 19), an eclectic afternoon with the superb Danish String Quartet (First Church in Cambridge, Jan. 30), an afternoon with the charming soprano Susanna Phillips (including more Schubert), Obama inaugural clarinetist Anthony McGill and pianist Myra Huang (GBH Calderwood Studio and streaming, March 13), and an as-yet-to-be-announced program with the wonderful Brooklyn Rider string quartet joined by Israeli mandolin virtuoso Avi Avital (GBH Calderwood Studio and streaming, March 18).
It’s not exactly “classical” music, but I call your attention to a Celebrity Series concert co-hosted with the Cambridge Public Library called “Letter & Spirit” featuring Boston’s irresistible poet and spoken word artist Regie Gibson and the world-music quintet Atlas Soul. Admission is free. (Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church, Feb. 26).
OTHER ORCHESTRAL MUSIC
There are more orchestras in Boston than the BSO. I once half-joked that the best orchestra in town was the “BFO” (Boston Freelance Orchestra). Our local freelance musicians are as good as any players anywhere. They’re mostly part of big orchestras, though we also get to hear some of them individually in smaller chamber groups. Here are some of the orchestras that have live concerts scheduled for this winter.
I don’t know anything about this event except what’s in the press release, but I can’t resist including it:
A classical music organization created for musicians living with mental illnesses and the people who support them will convene 100 of its New England players for “Stigma-Free at Symphony Hall,” a free concert aimed at audience members with mental illnesses and their allies, but open to all.
Me2/ was founded in 2011 by musical director Ronald Braunstein, whose career was inhibited by a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Executive director Caroline Whiddon says, “it’s powerful for audience members to be free of traditional expectations at a classical music concert… the group works to create stigma-free zones in its own rehearsals, backstage and at other gatherings, so offering the same for audience members was a natural step. … We plan to make everyone comfortable at this performance by taking the pressure off the experience of attending a concert. … Our philosophy is ‘come any way you can,’ ‘be who you are’ and ‘do what you need to do while you’re here.’” The Boston program (Jan. 23) will include familiar selections from Beethoven, Rossini, Elgar, Berlioz and Grieg, and a piece by Milad Yousufi, an Afghani composer living in New York. RSVPs are required.
Boston Philharmonic Orchestra & Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra
Symphony Hall | Feb. 6 and 27
The online journal The Arts Fuse called Benjamin Zander’s Boston Philharmonic Bruckner Symphony No. 8 the classical Performance of the Year. I watched it, rapt, on my computer. I wouldn’t argue with that choice, though the BPO’s Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2, with the astounding Stefan Jackiw, made me thoroughly reevaluate a piece that never got to me before. Zander’s heavenly Mahler Fourth (it literally ends up in Heaven), with the impressive Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra and Russian soprano Sofia Fomina, which I attended in person, is another contender for that “best of” accolade. During the pandemic, Zander had all the players learn how to conduct this score, and every single one of them seemed to be aware of what everyone else was playing — quite rare among orchestral performances.
Zander’s winter BPO program includes Mussorgsky’s gorgeous Prelude to “Khovanshchina,” Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, with the young Romanian cellist Andrei Ioniță (new to me) and Beethoven’s heroic Symphony No. 3 (Feb. 6). The BPYO concert (Feb. 27) will begin with Ravel’s “La Valse,” then move on to the Elgar Cello Concerto, with the American cellist Zlatomir Fung (also new to me), and Shostakovich’s popular Symphony No. 5.
The motto of the LSO, directed by conductor and former BSO cellist Ronald Feldman, is “Healing the community through music” — surely the inevitable goal of an orchestra made up mostly of healthcare professionals. This winter’s program (March 5) includes Respighi’s “Ancient Airs and Dances” Suite No. 1, Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Winds, and — what more appropriate — Haydn’s “Miracle” Symphony.
This is sadly not Boston’s greatest period for live staged opera. Where is the new Sarah Caldwell or Peter Sellars? The most thrilling operatic prospect is the BSO’s concert version of Berg’s “Wozzeck.” Some of the smaller companies have been coming up with interesting events. The best opera production I saw last year was the Enigma Chamber Opera’s moving performance, live and streaming, of Benjamin Britten’s “Curlew River,” staged by Kirsten Cairns. I haven’t seen anything listed by Enigma for the coming season. Boston Opera Collaborative has canceled its live performance of “Opera Bites” but will have upcoming information about its filmed version. Keep your eyes peeled.
Our leading opera company has only one live opera production in the works, Terence Blanchard’s “Champion: An Opera in Jazz,” which won’t be opening until next April. Dated only “Winter 2022” and streaming on BLO’s “operabox.TV,” will be Montreal-based, Serbian-born composer Ana Sokolović’s “Svadba” (“wedding” in Serbian), an opera for six a cappella voices with dancers taking place the night before the event in its title. This marks the fourth production of “Svadba” since it premiered in 2012. The film’s director is Shura Baryshnikov (the daughter of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Jessica Lange).
Virtual | Jan. 14, Feb. 11 & March 11
Now celebrating its 15th season, the consistently inventive Guerilla Opera will be streaming three recent operas: an animated film of Boston composer Marti Epstein’s “Rumpelstiltskin” (premiering Jan. 14), an encore presentation of Gabriele Vanoni’s “Ellis” (Feb. 11), and Anna Lindemann’s “The Colony,” about people and ants (March 11).
The Met Live in HD
Multiple Locations | Jan. 29, March 12 & 26
For grand opera in the flesh, one could always head down to New York’s Metropolitan Opera, one of the world’s great opera houses. But if you’re willing to forego the sound of live singing and a live orchestra, the Met Live in HD, at local movie theaters, is a convenient and far less expensive alternative. Upcoming Saturday matinees streamed live from the stage at Lincoln Center will be Bartlett Sher’s new Art Deco staging of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” (Jan. 29), Richard Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos,” with the impressive young Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen in the title role (March 12), and a new production of one of Verdi’s grandest and most ambitious operas, “Don Carlos,” sung for the first time at the Met in its original French version (Boston’s Sarah Caldwell beat the Met to the American premiere of this version by nearly 50 years!). The Met’s music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin will conduct a cast including Matthew Polenzani, Sonya Yoncheva, Elīna Garanča, and Eric Owens (March 26).
Boston is so lucky to have so many wonderful composers living in the area — often affiliated with our many universities. Here are a couple of outstanding musical groups that focus on the most recent compositions.
Collage New Music
Longy’s Pickman Hall | Jan. 17, Feb. 27
Entering its 49th season, Collage New Music, led by David Hoose, features modern and contemporary chamber music performed on the highest level. Their first concert (Jan. 17) features work by Marjorie Merryman, a beloved Boston figure no longer living in Boston, along with Talia Amar, Eric Nathan and Andrew Imbrie (a Hoose favorite). The second concert includes something I’ve never heard Collage play before, a piece by Hoose himself, “First Pass,” along with pieces by Brian Sears, David Rakowski, Katherine Salfelder and David Froom (Feb. 27).
Symphony Hall | Feb. 18
Gil Rose’s Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) is best known for playing contemporary music and has recently been honored at the Gramophone Classical Music Awards for its recordings of music by living American composers — music often overlooked. One of their latest recordings is devoted to Boston icon John Harbison, including a gorgeous piece, “Diotima,” commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation and premiered by the BSO in 1977 and not played by them since.
BMOP is celebrating its 25th anniversary with only one live concert this winter that includes a couple of composers neither living nor American, J.S. Bach — the C-minor Fantasia and Fugue (arranged by Edward Elgar) — and Olivier Messiaen. BMOP’s guest star for this program, called “Pulling Out All the Stops,” is the distinguished organist Paul Jacobs, playing the grand Symphony Hall organ in works by Stephen Paulus and Joseph Jongen, Tickets are free but need to be reserved through the Symphony Hall box office.
For more than two centuries, Boston has been a home for outstanding choral music. Here are some appealing programs from some of our notable ensembles.
Inaugurated in 1815, the Handel and Haydn Society is the oldest performing organization in this country, and one of the most popular ensembles in Boston.
In its second set of concerts in the new year (Jan. 28 and 30), H+H artistic director Harry Christophers leads a program in which he sandwiches lively early Mozart (Violin Concerto No. 1 with H+H concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky) between two Haydn masterpieces, the “Drum Roll” Symphony and the “Theresienmesse” (a grand mass in honor of empress Maria Theresa).
First Church Cambridge | Feb. 11 & March 27
This season, four conductors are vying to replace David Hoose, the esteemed longtime director of the Cantata Singers. Two of them have upcoming concerts. Noah Horn leads “Into Your Hands,” an eclectically coherent program dealing with spiritual issues from Bach and Handel to the 19th-century Canadian-American R. Nathaniel Dett, to 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winner Caroline Shaw (Feb. 11). The final finalist, Katherine Chan, leads a program called “Where Love and Hope,” featuring the Urbanity Dance company, in works by Bach, Schütz, Duruflé and Jonathan Dove, the only composers familiar to me (the rest, all still living, and ranging in age from 41 to 84).
The group I first turn to when I think of Bach is Emmanuel Music, and this year, besides the weekly Bach cantatas as part of the Emmanuel Church Sunday service, the featured work is one of the greatest, most complex, and most controversial choral works in the western canon, Bach’s “St. John Passion,” conducted by Emmanuel Music director Ryan Turner. You can also expect a series of lectures and discussions surrounding this magnificent and challenging work.
Boston has become one of the world centers for so-called “early music,” which mainly means European music composed up until the end of the 18th century and played on the instruments used by the original musicians of their times. Three of the most distinguished early-music groups in the world are based here in Boston, and each one is quite distinctive. I list them here alphabetically.
GBH Calderwood Studio | March 19-20
Boston’s oldest period-instrument orchestra is offering one of the most joyous programs of the winter season. Music director Martin Pearlman will be conducting Vivaldi’s “Gloria” (possibly best known as one of choreographer Mark Morris’ early masterpieces) and Handel’s “Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day,” his setting of John Dryden’s poetic marvel about the power of music, inspired by the patron saint of music. (The March 20 performance will be streamed live on IDAGIO.)
The early-music group I’ve known the longest, the Boston Camerata, was founded in 1954. It’s been directed since 2009 by soprano Anne Azèma and for 40 years before that by lutenist Joel Cohen (Azèma’s husband). For the Camerata, “early music” is not only European but also American. Camerata can do a Purcell opera as effortlessly as it does a Shaker hymn. It’s on the international circuit but is still based in Boston. This season’s local event is called “Douce Dame Jolie: Guillaume de Machaut’s Last Affair,” the story of the aging medieval composer, poet and 14th-century pandemic survivor’s fabled late-blooming romance with a gifted and adoring 19-year-old noblewoman. The concert will include songs and poetry by both Machaut and his beloved Péronne d’Armentière, with accompaniments on harps, lutes and vielles.
BEMF is the Celebrity Series of early music, importing some of the best known and most highly regarded international soloists and ensembles. This winter, we’re getting — in both live and virtual performances — Stile Antico, the celebrated British a cappella vocal ensemble especially admired for singing Renaissance music (St. Paul Church, Cambridge, Feb. 18). Then early-music superstar Jordi Savall and the period-instrument ensemble Le Concert des Nations in a program glamorously called “Le Fétes Royales in Baroque Versailles” (St. Paul Church, Feb. 25). And then Paul Agnew directing New York’s Juilliard415 and the Hague’s Royal Early Music in C.P.E. Bach’s rarely performed oratorio “Die Israeliten in der Wüste (The Israelites in the Desert)” (First Church in Cambridge, March 26). (All performances will be available to stream virtually for a limited time.)
Boston is blessed with extraordinary chamber ensembles, some established as groups, like the Borromeo, Parker and Lydian Quartets, some of which are pop-ups. One group I love, Winsor Music, doesn’t have any upcoming concerts until the spring. But here are a few we can enjoy this winter.
The esteemed Sarasa Ensemble is actually a collective of some 100 musicians, who perform on both modern and period instruments. Based in Boston, they perform internationally and their annual concert series includes performances at the Brattleboro Music Center in Brattleboro, Vermont, Cambridge’s Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church and Lexington’s Follen Community Church. They have two scheduled concerts this winter. “Music from the Heart: Mitteldeutschland” focuses on German instrumental and vocal music after the 30 Years War, i.e., Bach and his less well-remembered contemporaries. “Native Realm” concentrates on music from or in reference to Poland (it takes its title from Czeslaw Milosz’s autobiography). Composers include Telemann, Górecki and J.H. Schmelzer, a 17th-century Austrian composer represented by his intriguingly titled “Polnische Sackpfeifen à 3” (Polish bagpipes). I’m not sure why the 16th-century Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria is included here, but any chance to hear his sublime masterpiece “O Magnum Mysterium” shouldn’t be ignored.
Borromeo String Quartet
Multiple Locations | Jan. 26, Feb. 10 & March 17
The great (I don’t use this word casually here) Borromeo Quartet, in residence at the New England Conservatory, also travels widely. But they have three concerts coming up in Boston. They’ve commissioned from Theodore Wiprud, a New York-based composer who majored in biochemistry at Harvard and in music theory at Boston Univerisity), what sounds like a fascinating piece, “Mysteria,” a quintet for string quartet and percussion (Ian Rosenbaum), which they’ll play at Jordan Hall on Jan. 26. Their two concerts at Barnes Hall are part of an ongoing Beethoven project with NEC. Each will include one of Beethoven’s late quartets and an earlier quartet. The one on Feb. 10 is called “PIVOT ON PPP//: DARKNESS TO WHIMSY TO TERROR TO – ?RESOLUTION?” and the one on March 17: “GHOSTS OF PRIOR PLANS – UNDERNEATH THE SCRAPE MARKS.”
This distinguished group has concerts with a rotating roster of superb players, but particular performers haven’t been announced yet for their upcoming concerts. I’m particularly excited about the earlier one (Jan. 30), a celebration of Schubert’s 225th birthday, which includes one of the greatest pieces of chamber music ever written, his gorgeous and heartbreaking String Quintet. The second (Feb. 13) will feature a world premiere of Joan Tower’s “Purple Rain,” commissioned by BCMS. (These performances will be available on video on demand after the live event.)
A Far Cry
Multiple Locations | Feb. 5-6, March 4
This extraordinary 18-piece chamber collective plays brilliantly without a conductor, and with a consistently surprising repertoire. Their winter concerts include a program called “Sunrise” (St. John’s Episcopal Church, Jamaica Plain, Feb. 5; Longy’s Pickman Hall, Feb. 6), which employs a smaller ensemble playing quintets by Boccherini (strings) and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (his clarinet quintet) and a quartet by Caroline Shaw. And “Amazonia” (Jordan Hall, March 4) features music from Peru, Colombia and Brazil, with guest harpist Bridget Kibbey. (“Amazonia” is available via livestream and video on demand.)
Lydian String Quartet
Slosberg Music Center, Brandeis | Feb. 5 & March 19
The terrific Lydians are our senior string quartet, though only violinist Judith Eissenberg remains from among the quartet’s founders. Both of their winter concerts include world premieres, one by Andrew Waggoner on a program with one of Beethoven’s least performed quartets, the “Harp” (Feb. 5), and one featuring a clarinet quintet (David Krakauer, guest clarinet) the Lydians commissioned from the eminent contemporary avant-gardist Vijay Iyer (March 19).
First Church Cambridge| Feb. 12, March 18-19
I think more of my musically interested friends love Scott Metcalfe’s vocal ensemble Blue Heron more passionately than any other group in Boston. The first of Blue Heron’s two winter 2022 programs is called “Un petrarchino cantato,” which I’ll loosely translate as “a little volume of Petrarch — sung” (in Bronzino’s famous portrait, the Italian poet Laura Battiferri is holding a “petrarchino” in her right hand). Blue Heron calls this pre-Valentine’s Day program “a musical valentine” and it consists of 16th-century musical settings of the 14th-century Italian sonneteer’s love poetry, mainly by composers I don’t know, and will include “dramatic recitations” of Petrarch in Italian and English. Blue Heron’s second winter program, “Ockeghem@600,” is now the 11th chapter in their complete edition of the 15th-century Flemish master.
This excellent ensemble has been Harvard’s string-quartet-in-residence for seven years. They seem to have one local concert listed on their website, which offers no details about its content as of this writing.