Andris Nelsons talks about his first BSO season and beyond

November 5, 2014 at 5:12 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Music director Andris Nelsons returns Thursday night for three weeks conducting the BSO. Photo: Chris Lee

Though he has just begin what he hopes to be a long and fruitful relationship, the Boston Symphony Orchestra has already left an indelible impression upon Andris Nelsons, its new music director.

The slimmed-down 35-year-old Latvian maestro, dressed in black pants, striped shirt, and sweater, spoke candidly in his room at Symphony Hall prior to his season-opening concerts about the present season, programming, and a little about his future plans for orchestra.

“In the beginning there are so many things to discover and experience,” he said. “This is of course one of the world’s best orchestras. It has an amazing sound quality.”

“Besides the amazing orchestra is the amazing concert hall,” Nelsons added.  “I think it is the best concert hall in the United States, and it’s one of the best in the world. So this is of course is part of a bonus, which creates the great sound.

“The sound is never forced, it’s never aggressive, even though there are moments when, for example, you play a Shostakovich symphony, you have to have sometimes the [edge],” the conductor said as he shook a fist while making a guttural sound.

In addition to its sound, Nelsons said that he is so far most impressed by the orchestra’s flexibility.

“Style is very important and it’s very subjective,” he said. “If someone conducts Beethoven [or] Mozart, they might ask for a certain, more authentic [approach].”

“We did Beethoven Five this summer,” he said.  “Each time I do Beethoven’s Fifth symphony it’s different . . . maybe with less vibrato, maybe with faster tempo, and the orchestra was following.”

That flexibility “is a generational shift,”  added Mark Volpe, managing director of the BSO. “I grew up with recordings, and had my father’s colleagues in the orchestra and it was ‘[we’re] the BSO, we’re going to play it this way, and these are the parts. We’ve had three concertmasters in a hundred years so the bowing’s absolutely intact and it’s just going to be that way.’

“And now, and the generational shift is through attrition basically, and people are returning and people being hired, it’s much more flexible . . . just the way we set up the orchestra.”

With Nelsons now at the helm, plans are to take the orchestra on a seventeen-day European festival tour late next summer, which will include concert stops in London, Paris, Berlin, Salzburg, and Milan.

Plans are also in the works for the orchestra to make new recordings and release them through traditional sources, like CDs and DVDs, as well as new media, such as streaming and digital downloads, Nelsons said.

“When we were kids, you had Deutsche Grammophon, Decca, EMI, now you talk to investors and the media companies are all Apple, Amazon, Google, and I think there’s an opportunity there too,” said Volpe. “So I think it’s going to be a multifaceted strategy [for us].”

“I think our approach in terms of media will be like our relationship with one of the old guard media companies. And we’ll possibly do a composer cycle; we haven’t consummated the details so I can’t tell you specifically,” he added. “We’re very proud of what we’ve done with our own label. I think we’re going to continue that, and that’s part of the discussion with the old traditional labels.”

When it comes to programming, the first thing the leaders of the Boston Symphony Orchestra try to do is take care of the audience from different perspectives. “Firstly, of course, the great quality of music-making in any case [is] taking care that the variety of repertory is there, because the expectation to hear the great geniuses of the past, the composers living now, and the composers who will compose in the future in commissions,” Nelsons said. “And I think these all aspects are important.”

As music director, Nelsons gets the first call on the repertoire he wants. But organizing the season program is actually more of a collaborative process than one might think. “There’s a committee of Andris, me, Tony Fogg, the artistic administrator, and then Andris has people he works with,” explained Volpe. “We first focus on Andris and that provides the base, and then we have relationships with Charlie Dutoit, with Christoph von Dohnányi  . . .  or Haitink, who is still a title conductor (emeritus).”

“It is an artistic process, it’s a discussion,” Nelsons added. “The variety you have, as a professional musician, you have to enlarge your repertoire and you’re responsible for sharing this repertoire of classical music, which is huge, so to enlarge that and to be flexible to be able to conduct starting from Classical or Baroque to contemporary music. You can’t say ‘Oh I love this composer and would do only this composer’.”

The BSO’s long tradition of performing French repertoire will be mainly handled by guest conductors this season. Nelsons will bring music from his own Slavonic background as well as German, Russian, and contemporary works. One thing he hopes to do is tackle pieces not covered by the other of the orchestra’s recent music directors. “Bruckner and Shostakovich, these composers were not performed by [previous] music directors. Maestro Levine, he didn’t do any,” Nelsons said. “So I was trying to think of what would also be something I could perform which was not done by previous music directors in recent years. And the Bruckners, and Shostakoviches, this line will certainly continue.”

Nelsons also plans to bring more music by Richard Strauss, one of his specialties, to Symphony Hall. The conductor this past summer led concert performances of Salome with the BSO and the final act of Der Rosenkavalier with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra.

As for contemporary works, this season will feature performances of works by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds, Sofia Gubaidulina, Brett Dean, and Native Boston composers Michael Gandolfi and John Harbison.

Programming, especially with contemporary works, is sometimes a market-driven game. “If Yo-Yo Ma or Itzhak Perlman are on the same program, and I don’t want to be that glib, but you have a little more latitude in what you can program, because you don’t have to worry about the box office,” said Volpe. “We’re obviously first and foremost a mission-driven orchestra led by Andris Nelsons, but we’re also a business, so when you have ten thousand seats to sell, you’ve got to have something, enough substance in terms of the audience perspective, that they’ll listen to something they might not know.”

Though Nelsons and Volpe were reluctant to talk in detail about programs beyond this season, future BSO concerts may include more performances of Baroque music. Nelsons has stated in previous interviews that the music Bach and Handel are best left to specialists. But recently he has had a change of heart.

“Now, very lately, I would say a few months ago, I wanted to start conducting Bach,” he said. “I think he’s a father figure for any composer ever. In Bach’s music there is everything. There is all contemporary music already there.”

“I think the message that he brings with his music, the personality or the architecture, it goes beyond the style and the size of the orchestra,” Nelsons went on to say. “I would like to do it in an unperiodic [way] just to express the musical and emotional message which the music brings, and that is what I am spontaneously thinking in my mind.”

One genre that will undoubtedly continue under Nelsons’ tenure is opera.

“With concert opera, I think it’s very exciting for the audience to hear,” Nelsons said. “But it’s also very exciting and very professionally and musically exciting for the symphonic orchestra to play an opera, which develops another direction of quality or flexibility. For an opera orchestra to play symphonic music on the stage, it develops the range of music making. It’s the same when a symphonic orchestra [plays] an opera. You see [the music] from a different perspective.”

That perspective, for Nelsons, requires sensitivity to the needs of the music, and, of course, a keen sense of balance. “[Playing] concertante is the biggest challenge. . . It’s also very exciting because you develop the sensitivity of music-making. And the listening to each other is so important in any music, whether its opera or symphony,” Nelsons said. “It’s also in life. There are moments when you have to listen to one person and the give the chance for another one [to speak], and you have to shut up and listen. . . It’s very exciting to make the balance and to make the flexibility . . . work.”

Nelsons cited his previous professional work as a singer and trumpet player as important elements to unlocking the requisite flexibility needed for concert performances of opera. But a key to understanding the music’s sensitivity, perhaps, lies closer to home for Nelsons. “Certainly being married to singer helps,” he said.

Andris Nelsons will lead the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2 and Gubaidulina’s Offertorium with violinist Baiba Skride 8 p.m. Thursday, 1:30 p.m. Friday, and 8 p.m. Saturday and Tuesday at Symphony Hall.; 617-266-1200

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