The historical links between the Boston Symphony and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra harken back to the American orchestra’s founding. They persisted through World War 1 and enjoyed a brief revival when the Gewandhaus' former concertmaster, Charles Munch, became BSO music director in 1949. Even the orchestra’s original home, the Boston Music Hall, bore an uncanny resemblance to the second Gewandhaus, built 33 years later. Now, with Andris Nelsons about to debut as Kapellmeister, the two orchestras begin a collaboration unthinkable 137 years ago, involving exchanges of musicians and students, visits to each other’s city and co-commissions. Leipzig Week inaugurated the exchange with lectures, concerts and archival exhibits. The BSO programmed works by composers associated with the Mendelssohn era at the Gewandhaus, plus the world première of a co-commission by Sean Shepherd.

Andris Nelsons leads the Boston Symphony © Michael Blanchard
Andris Nelsons leads the Boston Symphony
© Michael Blanchard

Express Abstractionism is Shepherd’s succinct musical collage of five abstract artists in four movements: 1) dense bubbles, or: Calder, or: the beginning of life, 2) Richter, or: the rainbow inside the bolt of lightning, 3) Kandinsky, and: marble, and: Krasner, and 4) the sun, or: the moon, or: Mondrian. He seeks to represent in sound the overall emotion, composition, and energy of their work, creating blocks of sound and color which overlap, stack up, bleach into each other, thicken and thin, approximate various shapes and express both aggressive, kinetic energy and contemplative stillness. The movement titles poke gentle fun at the teasing titles favored by many abstract artists which either say nothing, are pregnant with illusory information, or deliberately confound expectations.

Sean Shepherd takes a bow after the première of <i>Express Abstractionism</i> © Michael Blanchard
Sean Shepherd takes a bow after the première of Express Abstractionism
© Michael Blanchard

For Calder, Shepherd creates a musical mobile with interwoven sound-shapes from clarinets and bassoons and strings (some bowing, others strumming), moving at contrasting speeds, occasionally rasping, and flashing as they catch the light. Gerhard is known for using a squeegee to apply broad bands of paint either horizontally or vertically. As a result texture and thickness vary and shards of the canvas remain exposed. Shepherd creates similar musical textures and gaps, interspersed with shifting colors and streaks of brighter lines. The third movement is the loudest and most intense. It contrasts two very different artists- teeming with cursive melodies approximating Krasner’s flowing, calligraphic lines and heavy brass and percussion evoking the density and weight of Kandinsky’s geometric shapes. The stillness and tranquility of Mondrian’s grids and blocks of primary colors and black and white infuses the temperate final movement and its calibrated timbres and discrete, isolated gestures with a sense of balance and proportion. A tolling figure adds a hint of nightfall. Express Abstractions has such density and vitality that its freshness and inventiveness can still impress and beguile absent any knowledge of the artists represented, especially when given such a vivid and vibrant performance.

Mendelssohn programmed the Concerto in D minor for three pianos in 1835, the first Bach the Gewandhaus ever played. The BSO deployed three lidless concert grands splayed out facing the podium. Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Thomas  Adès used scores; Kirill Gerstein had an iPad canted on the lowered prop and played the lead part with buoyant, sparkling fluidity. The three pianist blended brightly and synchronized well, especially in the virtuosic, contrapuntal, closing Allegro. They strove for clarity, but the grands couldn’t help but add a certain thickness to the texture which blurred the interplay. Nelsons cushioned the soloists with a warm, nimble, dancing continuo.

Andris Nelsons leads Kirill Gerstein, Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Thomas Adès © Michael Blanchard
Andris Nelsons leads Kirill Gerstein, Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Thomas Adès
© Michael Blanchard

Nachtlied, intimate and introspective, and Neujahrslied, gregarious and celebratory both betray Schumann’s familiarity with Mendelssohn’s oratorios. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang a soulful, dream-like Nachtlied of muted colors, a lullaby washed in the waters of the Lethe, and a bright, spirited, and joyous Neujahrslied. Unfortunately, David Kravitz sounded uncharacteristically dry, stiff, and out of sorts with the celebration.

Mendelssohn greatly admired Schiller’s Maria Stuart so it is no wonder he was profoundly moved when he saw the ruins of Holyrood Palace during his 1829 tour of Scotland. He sketched sixteen bars of music which would evolve into the opening to his Third Symphony twelve years later. He liberally uses pianissimo throughout and asks that the movements be played without pause, making for some tricky transitions. Attention to dynamics and tempo are key as the music continually swells and subsides. Nelsons masterfully managed both, opting for slower tempos in the Adagio and outer movements. The symphony opened darkly in mystery and majesty with the dirge-like Holyrood theme and ended with a glowing hymn of celebration after the preceding stormy, warlike struggle. In between, the Scherzo tripped with elfin élan and the rhythm and energy of a Highland dance while the Adagio chastened long lines of singing melody with more martial rhythms.

All in all an auspicious beginning to what should be a fruitful and fascinating collaboration.