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Meeting Conductor Andris Nelsons

Is Rising Star on BSO's Short List

By: Susan Hall - Mar 17, 2011

The public meet and greet with the Boston Symphony takes place on Thursday, March 17 in Carnegie Hall where the Symphony, led by Andris Nelsons, will perform Mahler’s Ninth.  Nelsons conducted this demanding piece with his own orchestra, the Birmingham Symphony, earlier this year, and enjoys going back again and again to the same compositions, looking for new insights and revelations.

I arrived at Nelsons' favorite restaurant shortly before he does, and the staff lit up when told he is coming for lunch. He is their favorite customer. His social graces abound, but as he enters it is clear that he is delightfully down to earth.

I asked for clarification on his family’s musical background, always referred to in generic terms.

“My mother taught teachers to teach music and also directed choirs. My stepfather did too.  My birth father was a cellist, so music was always around me. Most of the music was Renaissance and Baroque choral music. I studied the piano, the trumpet and sang in s small choral group where I was the only bass/baritone.

“My first opera was Tannhauser, he said. "I was five and was very upset that the hero died in the end. Of course, everyone dies in opera, but it takes a while to learn that.  The music transported me.

“Wagner is my first and one of my favorite composers.  Strauss and Tchaikovsky too.   I love the Puccini operas. I will do Madame Butterfly a Covent Garden.  La Boheme was my first opera to conduct.”

We discuss his experience in Bayreuth doing Lohengrin last summer with Jonas Kaufmann in the title role.  Bayreuth is of course a mecca for Wagner lovers.  This summer he will return to conduct Lohengrin again but this time with Klaus Florian Vogt, who last summer stepped in once for Kaufmann.  Clearly Nelsons enjoyed the ‘cold’ performance without any rehearsal.  Nothing like surprise to get your attention.  He talks often about surprise as an element to deploy in order to reach contemporary audiences. 

Nelsons has studied privately with conductor Mariss Jansons with whom he is close.  Mention of his predecessor at Birmingham, Simon Rattle, brings a large smile. 

Listening to Nelsons conduct Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame last Friday, I was struck not only by his sense of the lyric line but also his sensitivity to the singers, three of the principals had a pretty tough outing.  Nelsons is one of those conductors who gets the music to breathe, for whom each performance is from scratch, not a walk through.  I tried to describe a musical effect I had not heard in other conductors.  There is often a harsh turn of phrase, a sudden stop, almost truncating a phrase.  The result reveals detail without impeding the momentum. The dynamic rivets the listener.  Nelsons clearly understands what I am trying to describe, but neither of us can come up with the words.

Nelsons plans to conduct the BSO in Tchaikovsky in the 2012-13 season.  At the moment there are no plans for Tanglewood this summer.  His schedule next year includes a fifteen city European tour with the Birmingham Symphony and no dates in the US, but, says Nelsons, that can change.

Earlier this week he met with the Symphony in Boston.  He lavished the orchestra with praise, “a great orchestra.”

We finally get to the elephant in the  room.  The eyes and ears of the music world are on him.  He grins, “Oh really?”  I almost believed he was unaware of his rising star.

The big question of course for an institution like the BSO is whether he would be willing to conduct only a very limited number of operas each year.  When I asked how he would choose between symphony and opera, he said without hesitation that he could not live without symphonic music. 

When I mention that in the last go-around the BSO members were asked to write on a piece of paper whom they would like to have as conductor, Levine was chosen almost unanimously, he asks if I know who else was considered.  I think he was probing for a short list of candidates this go around.  He is not uninterested, although he cloaks his curiosity with charm. 

In the olden days, Koussevitzky always said that he wanted to settle in one place and make his music there.  He chose Boston.  Levine in the beginning made the same kind of remarks.  Clearly Boston yearns for a resident conductor who will become part of the Boston and Berkshires community.  When I asked Nelsons whether or not he thought he could settle in the US, he said you don’t have to do that today.  You just fly from assignment to assignment.  I said I supposed that if you had a private plane like Gergiev, you could schedule a performance in Moscow one night, New York the next, then back to Moscow and then New York in four days.  We both laugh because of course Gergiev recently cancelled two New York performances under just these circumstances.

I wonder if often crossing the pond is what a great orchestra has in mind.  Would a conductor who is often in touch through ether satisfy?   New York is certainly pleased with the Philharmonic music director who shops for his groceries at Fairway.  Currently Nelsons maintains a small apartment in Birmingham, but his home is in Riga, Latvia where he was born.  Maybe the 21st century can accommodate a different definition of settling.

Birmingham feels right now that he is theirs, even though he spends a good deal of time on the road.  Chicago understands Muti’s need to be elsewhere.  Nelsons participates not only in the musical but also in the social life of Birmingham.  Discussing the need to build audiences in the future, he was proud of the programs Birmingham has not just for children but also for families.  Muti is bringing music to Mexican children in Chicago.  Dudamel has introduced ‘la systema,’ the Venezuelan program for children, into South Central Los Angeles.  

Nelsons talks poignantly about the perilous state of the world and the need of humans for the kind of solace and comfort music can bring. The music itself has to be fresh and vibrant. 

How to do this?  The General Manager at Birmingham reports that Nelsons re-imagines a score before each performance.  Nelsons talks about breathing life into music no matter what the date of its composition.  In opera, Nelsons observes, the conductor is responding to different voices and different performances.  With the symphony, it is in part the story that the composition tells, taking the palette of colors and tones and weaving them into an emotional connection with the listener.  This all can sound good, but does it actually create sound that reaches out.  Nelsons seems to have a remarkable ability to do just this. 

We talked about limitations providing the opportunity to delve deep.  Articulating the importance of time (tempi) containing a composition, Nelsons points out that there is a big difference between Mahler’s 2 and 3 symphonies and the 8 and 9.  The earlier symphonies sprawl and have to be contained by fairly strict tempi, he observed.  (He seemed surprised to learn that Levine had not shown for the Second last summer.  I gather that he is aware only of the Maestro’s illness and not the cost to Boston over the past five years). 

Nelsons talks about tempi as the beating heart.  Like the heart beat, you are somewhat constrained.  Too fast or too slow is deadening and yet there is some room for variation.  Nelsons talks about limitations like the range of tempi that work as both liberating and defining. 

We both again struggle to put words to the excitement and surprise he creates in phrases and lines, but in the end come up empty-handed.  Perhaps this is for the best, because listening to him conduct is thrilling, and how he gets there is told with music, not words.