Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall in February 2019. –(Photo by Winslow Townson)

The Boston Symphony Orchestra launches its new season Thursday night with a slew of performers: the orchestra, of course, plus two piano-playing brothers, seven singing soloists, the mighty Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and, for all we know, a partridge in a pear tree.

But the real fireworks begin the week of Oct. 29, when the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig visits during “Leipzig Week in Boston.” The Boston and German orchestras team up for a Halloween weekend of concerts with performances featuring more than 140 musicians on stage, compared with the usual maximum of 80 to 90 for typical BSO events.

They will perform two rarely heard pieces: the Strauss Festive Prelude for organ and orchestra, as well as the Scriabin Poem of Ecstasy. Why are they so rarely heard? Because you need a big crowd of musicians to play them properly, and that costs a lot of money. Beethoven and Brahms are a lot easier on an orchestra’s budget. That’s what makes these performances special.

The bond with Leipzig has the BSO performing in that historic city each year. When the music stops, the musicians put down their instruments and play soccer, take long bike rides through the woods of Saxony, and otherwise get to know each other and how they approach their craft.

The initial impetus for the collaboration between the two cities was the need for Andris Nelsons, the BSO’s music director, to find a more humane travel schedule. He had been living out of a suitcase, as great conductors so often do, with a week in Paris, a week in Berlin, a week in London, and then another week trying to remember which city came next.

“Andris needed a more livable calendar,” said Mark Volpe, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s CEO. “We approached Leipzig, and a unique partnership was born.”

The BSO and the Gewandhaus created an annual residency for Nelsons, who now spends less time living in hotel rooms and more time in his two conducting bases, Boston and Leipzig.

Volpe notes that in addition to Nelsons’ second conducting home and the orchestras visiting each other’s cities, conducting and composing fellows from each ensemble study in their counterpart’s city, and two players from each orchestra spend sabbatical periods with the other group.

“They’re taking sabbaticals for the same reasons as academics,” Volpe said. “You refresh, recharge, and get a new perspective on things. The experience invigorates the individual musicians and the orchestras as a whole.”

The difference in repertoire gives the two orchestras plenty to discuss as well, Volpe said.

“American orchestras must be infinitely flexible,” he said. “American concert seasons feature classical music, opera, pops, movie music, and even country music. European orchestras tend to perform almost entirely classical music and opera. So they have a different perspective because they get to focus on their core repertoire all year long. It’s something the musicians talk about and learn from.”

The histories of the two orchestras have been intertwined from the BSO’s earliest days. When Henry Lee Higginson, the BSO’s founder, first sought a conductor and musicians for his new ensemble, he reached back to the Old World, and specifically Leipzig, for his performers. In addition, Boston’s Symphony Hall is modeled on an earlier version of Leipzig’s concert hall, which Higginson found aesthetically and acoustically pleasing.

When World War I began and America found itself at war with Germany, the German musicians in Boston were summarily replaced with Frenchmen. Time healed those wounds, and the bond between the BSO and the Gewandhaus has renewed, especially since the new partnership began.

American orchestras can only envy the esteem in which their European counterparts are held. The Gewandhaus announces its schedule each year to a crowd of 1,500 fans and reporters.

“It’s a little like the NFL Draft,” Volpe laughed.

The two orchestras also share a devotion to new music. Since Leipzig is a wee bit older than the BSO, dating back to 1743, they have had the privilege of premiering pieces by Schubert, Mahler, Mendelssohn, and Wagner, among others. Not coincidentally, you can hear the Gewandhaus, under the baton of Maestro Nelsons, play works by those four composers in a special concert on Friday, Oct. 29.

If you are inclined toward once-in-a-lifetime concert programs, and seeing Symphony Hall’s stage as crowded as the Orange Line during rush hour, you may want to get your tickets early for the combined BSO/Gewandhaus performances during “Leipzig Week in Boston.”

Can’t make it? Check out the BSO’s complete 2019-2020 season schedule.


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