Since 2017, the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig and the Boston Symphony Orchestra have been artistic partners, collaborating extensively on programming, personnel development, and training. Here, we take a look a how this unique alliance came into being.
Under the direction of Andris Nelsons, the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) and Gewandhausorchester (GHO) alliance is a new multidimensional collaboration designed to create opportunities for these two orchestras and their respective audiences to explore each ensemble’s unique world of music-making and discover the great traditions and historic accomplishments that have played an important role in building their reputations as two of the world’s great orchestras. In addition, the programs of the BSO/GHO alliance celebrates the shared mutual heritage of these two orchestras, while also shedding light on the overall culture of each ensemble and the cities they are proud to call home.
Taking place over a five-year period starting in 2017-18, the BSO/GHO alliance features an expansive co-commissioning program, educational programs designed to spotlight each orchestra’s culture and history, and tour performances by the BSO at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig and GHO at Symphony Hall in Boston, providing an extraordinary opportunity for orchestra musicians and audiences alike. This new alliance will also include musician exchanges between the two orchestras and their respective acclaimed academies for advanced music studies. One of the major highlights of the BSO/GHO alliance, to take place annually over the five-year period of the collaboration, will be a focus on complementary programming, whereby the BSO will celebrate “Leipzig Week in Boston” and GHO will celebrate “Boston Week in Leipzig” every season, highlighting each other’s musical traditions through uniquely programmed concerts, chamber music performances, archival exhibits and lecture series. Christoph Wolff, Adams University Professor at Harvard University, former Director of the Bach Archive in Leipzig (2001-13), and author of numerous acclaimed texts on the history of music from the 15th to 20th centuries, will serve as an artistic advisor to the BSO/GHO alliance.
This new alliance between the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra—which celebrates the great traditions and vibrant ongoing influence of each organization, highlights our shared heritage, and stimulates new artistic synergies—is unprecedented in the orchestra world and has inspired a new dimension of creative programming for both orchestras.
The history of close cultural connections between Boston and Leipzig began in 1881, when the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s founder, Henry Lee Higginson, appointed Leipzig Conservatory-trained Georg Henschel as the BSO’s first conductor. Subsequent conductors of the BSO, including Wilhelm Gericke, Emil Paur, Max Fiedler, Karl Muck, and particularly Arthur Nikisch, were either educated in Leipzig and/or held posts with the Gewandhausorchester. In the mid-20th century, the Leipzig tie was reinforced when Charles Munch was BSO Music Director from 1949 to 1962. Munch, who studied in Leipzig, was concertmaster of the Gewandhausorchester from 1926 to 1933.
Symphony Hall in Boston, which was inaugurated in 1900, is not simply a replica of the historically renowned second Gewandhaus that opened its doors in 1884 and was destroyed in 1944. Mr. Higginson had visited the Leipzig concert hall while touring Europe and had instructed his team of architects to design a larger version of the Gewandhaus, with as many as 2600 seats. Boston’s new hall also added the latest acoustic principles to the overall design of its Leipzig counterpart. These acoustical principles played a major role in determining the size of the stage and the placement of sound-absorbing statues in the auditorium, among other features.
In 1974, the Gewandhausorchester appeared in Boston’s Symphony Hall during its first tour of the United States. To date, Boston has welcomed the Gewandhausorchester for ten guest performances, including its most recent appearance in the 2014-15 concert season. While the BSO made its debut appearance at the Gewandhaus in May 2016, the Leipzig hall featured the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra, affiliated with the BSO, in 2008 during its European tour.
Since its founding in 1743, the GHO has been associated with some of the greatest figures of music history, including Johann Sebastian Bach, who lived and worked in Leipzig from 1723 until 1750, the year of his death at age 65. In addition to the GHO’s widely known reputation for performances of the works of Bach, the orchestra also gave the premieres of works by such luminaries of classical music as Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Brahms. This tradition has continued into the 20th and 21st centuries with scores by such significant composers as Henze, Kancheli, and Rihm, among others. The BSO’s own compositional legacy is similarly without parallel, including some of the seminal scores of the last century from composers ranging from Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Bartók, to Messiaen and Dutilleux, and myriad Americans including Copland, Bernstein, Sessions, Carter, and Harbison, among others.
Renowned orchestras are somewhat similar to the highest points of a mountain range. They rise up from the musical landscape as irrefutable references to the past, while simultaneously reaching towards new heights. For many years, they have each stood alone in splendid isolation; an exchange from summit to summit rarely taking place. That is until the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig decided to move mountains together.
Such a partnership is unique in the classical world: extensive collaboration at an artistic and organisational level between two institutions with such reputations has never happened before. On first impressions, the orchestras appear to be very different: The Gewandhausorchester is deeply influenced by Classical and Romantic repertoire, whereas the Boston Symphony Orchestra stands firmly in the twentieth century, with strong influences from the French and German compositional traditions.
I am incredibly grateful to all my colleagues at the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Gewandhausorchester for coming together with me in a spirit of great camaraderie to create a new and absolutely unique partnership in music-making.
Despite these differences, both institutions look back on a long-lasting mutual history. When Henry Lee Higginson founded the BSO in 1881, he engaged the Leipzig-trained Georg Henschel as a conductor, the first in a series of musical directors who honed their craft at the Leipzig’s music academy or held positions with the Gewandhausorchester. Emil Paur, Max Fiedler and Karl Muck all brought experience from Leipzig to Boston. Arthur Nikisch took over the helm of the BSO from 1889 to 1893 before holding the position of conductor at the Gewandhaus, and Charles Münch was first Gewandhauskapellmeister during the 1920s, before taking over in Boston in 1949.
Both orchestras are also renowned for their history of presenting world premieres. The Gewandhausorchester was the first to present many works by Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Brahms to the world, as well as works by Schnittke and Rihm, whilst premieres of Prokofiev, Gershwin, Stravinsky, and Bartók were given in Boston and Tanglewood by the BSO. The strong ties between Boston and the Gewandhaus also took on a physical form at the beginning of the twentieth century when Boston’s Symphony Hall, built in 1900, was inspired by the Second Gewandhaus in Leipzig, which was later destroyed during the Second World War.
Andris Nelsons knew of this mutual history when he agreed to be Gewandhauskapellmeister in Leipzig in 2018, exactly four years after taking over the podium in Boston. What started as an unusual, if obvious, idea of bringing together two orchestras, quickly became a matter of personal importance for the Latvian conductor, and one that was met with a great deal of support and excitement on both sides of the Atlantic. “This unique partnership offers new artistic potential and opens a strong and original perspective to the world of classical music”, he proudly states.
Renowed orchestras are somewhat similar to the highest points of a mountain range. They rise up from the musical landscape as irrefutable references to the past.
Entirely in keeping with the tradition of world premieres, both orchestras continue to write musical history. The alliance includes co-commissions from Europe and the US, with compositions so far from Sean Shephard, Jörg Widmann and Andris Dzenītis, all receiving critical acclaim from the outset. This continues in May 2019 with a new work from Sebastian Currier, and further pieces by Betsey Jolas, HK Gruber and Sofia Gubaidulina have been confirmed.
A particular highlight is planned for October and November 2019: during the week-long residence of the Gewandhausorchester in Boston, the two orchestras will be performing together for the first time, with the orchestral line-up consisting half of Bostonians and half of Leipzigers. Aside from this, the direct exchange between members of the two orchestras is the most important aspect of the project, wherein each season, two musicians are given the opportunity to play with the partner orchestra. Also in terms of young talent, the orchestras are reaching out to each other, organising international study visits and support programmes, which open up brand new opportunities for training between the Tanglewood Music Center and the Mendelssohn Orchestra Academy.
Moving mountains is best achieved as a team. Above all, this includes Andris Nelons and the members of the two orchestras, but also the management teams of each orchestra, who, according to Andreas Schulz, Director of the Gewandhaus, have worked on the project with great passion and dedication from the very beginning. There is a “strong bond” between the two cities, says Schulz, “our dialogue on artistic planning, which often happens in person, is lively and inspiring”. Mark Volpe, Managing Director of the BSO comments that this alliance “celebrates the historical importance of each organisation, highlights our shared heritage, and stimulates new artistic synergies” and how “under Andris Nelsons’ guidance and leadership, the alliance is creating opportunities for important and fruitful musical and cultural exchanges and bringing the extraordinary musical gifts of each orchestra to a greater worldwide audience.” The alliance is still in its infancy and there are many big plans still to come, with further exciting announcements of collaboration yet to be made. Making visionary plans requires foresight – and where to get this if not on the summit of two mountains that, within a short amount of time, have created a remarkable path between them.
Written by Judith Jung