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The Boston Symphony Orchestra--a changing tradition

December 3, 2011 |  9:00 am

Boston Symphony
Joseph Hearne has seen plenty during his almost 50 years as a double-bassist with the venerable Boston Symphony Orchestra, which comes to Walt Disney Concert Hall next week. And not everything has been about preserving the past. He’s seen plenty of change too.

“We went from three women when I joined in 1962 to somewhere around 40 now,” Hearne said. “And there were no Asian musicians in the orchestra when I started; now there are about 15. In the old days, it was a pretty wild place. It’s far more businesslike and professional now. I actually think it’s a better orchestra now.”

Hearne has thus far served under four music directors in Boston -– Erich Leinsdorf, William Steinberg, Seiji Ozawa and James Levine -– but his connection with the ensemble’s storied past goes beyond that. “I used to work for Pierre Monteux too,” he said, referring to the legendary French maestro who led the BSO from 1919 to 1924 but would return to guest conduct for decades after. “He was about 90 when I was in the ‘echo orchestra’ in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and he chewed me out for dragging.”

It was Monteux who famously led the riotous premiere of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” -– in Paris, in 1913 –- and it just so happened that two musicians from that orchestra were serving in the BSO when Hearne joined. It was an impressive link with history, to be sure, but they were veritable tyros compared with a long-retired player Hearne was lucky enough to meet. “He had been an assistant concertmaster with the orchestra,” the bassist recalled, “and he was in his mid-90s then. But he had met Brahms.”

Stories like Hearne’s are one example of how the BSO maintains a connection with a valued past while also being firmly rooted in classical music’s ever-changing present.  

Real more about the present and future of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

--David Mermelstein

Photo: Conductor James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall in 2005. Credit: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times