Winkler’s Weekly Symphony Guide: The classical meritocracy and ‘A Toast!’ to the BSO

Graphic by Avril Lynch
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The Boston Symphony Orchestra opens its 2022–23 season with a program that is emblematic of its philosophy and serves as a historically and musically diverse preview of what’s to come. The lineup includes seemingly disparate works that reach over three hundred years back into the Baroque with J.S. Bach’s “Keyboard Concerto in A” before rocketing into the here and now with Jessie Montgomery’s “Rounds” (2022), a work whose inception was only a few months ago following its premiere in March. 

In addition to this historical survey is Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” (1918), filling the role of crowd pleaser, and John Williams’ “A Toast!” (2014), a playful nod to BSO tradition. While the centerpiece of the program is clearly “The Planets,” by placing the behemoth that is Bach on equal footing with contemporary composer Montgomery (both works are roughly the same length at around 15 minutes), the BSO is sending a clear message about their values.

While the BSO upholds and works within the classical meritocracy, it strives to push the definition of what that meritocracy is to include new works from diverse voices. A white male historical figurehead whose name is synonymous with stodgy classical music is given as much playtime as a lesser-known and contemporary Black female composer. 

The inclusion and support of new compositions from previously unheard perspectives is absolutely fundamental to the lifeblood of “classical” music and orchestras. Classical music has already lost much of the cultural relevance it once had, which, in my opinion, causes orchestras to try and please their well-established audience with incessant performances of masterworks. 

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Yet in an era of technology where hundreds of world-class recordings for each masterwork are freely available, you have to wonder who will be regularly filling seats for the umpteenth iteration of “Pictures” once those who don’t understand Spotify or YouTube have passed on. While live symphonic performances always trump any recording, the novelty of listening to “The Planets” live begins to wear off when confronted with the fact that the orchestra’s future target audience will have likely already heard dozens of world-class orchestras perform the suite from the comfort of their home before ever stepping foot in a symphony hall. Which is not to say that “The Planets,” “Pictures” or any of the other masterworks are not brilliant and important to the continuation of classical music, but rather that they are entry points to a world that is both historically vast, living and growing. It is when the same 20 or so pieces become an orchestra’s identity that I fear for the future of the classical world. 

Regardless, the BSO is a breath of fresh air, as a world-class and historical institution that is trying to widen the classical meritocracy to breathe all-too-needed new life into the orchestral world. While it continues to uphold and work within that meritocracy, its ideology ensures something exciting for both new, old, experienced and beginner listeners.

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