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Could A Good Choice For The BSO Turn Into A Great Choice For Boston?

Andris Nelsons conducting the BSO. (Courtesy Marco Borggreve)
Andris Nelsons conducting the BSO. (Courtesy Marco Borggreve)

It seemed like it would be a run-of-the-mill finale to a Tanglewood concert on a summer night in Lenox — "The New World Symphony" by Dvorák. It was anything but. From downbeat to the resounding final notes it was an extraordinary performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons, now celebrating his fifth season as music director. You could almost feel the entire orchestra playing as one, the audience breathing as one.

Later in July, a month that Nelsons devoted to the BSO’s summer home in Tanglewood, he led the young Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in three concert performance of Wagner’s “Die Walküre” that had critics applying superlatives to all concerned, but specifically for Nelsons’ abilities as teacher, collaborator and conductor.

If these concerts were Nelsons at his best, there were nights that were the opposite — performances of Mahler’s Fifth or Ravel’s "Daphnis and Chloé" that had you thinking about rearranging your bookshelves. There seemed no overall flow to the meandering performances. There’s something of the same dichotomy in the Symphony Hall concerts, though they tend to be more polished since they’re repeated and more rehearsed.

Thankfully, there are more Dvorák Ninths (which will be performed four times by the BSO in late January) than Mahler Fifths under Nelsons. Plus, there’s his sensational Shostakovich recordings, which have won something like a gazillion Grammys and near-universal critical accolades. Even his Shostakovich Second, a rarely-performed piece of Stalinist agitprop that wouldn’t make the Russian composer's Greatest Hits recording, was treated with intelligence, respect and passion, by Nelsons, the BSO and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

But there’s more to the success or failure of Nelsons than how well he conducts the traditional repertory. Is he bringing new work to the surface? Is he expanding the BSO’s audience? And what does his tenure represent to Boston and the world beyond?

Is he bringing new work to the surface? Is he expanding the BSO’s audience? And what does his tenure represent to Boston and the world beyond?

There is no escaping comparison between Nelsons and his predecessor James Levine. It always struck me that Levine was more in line with the great-maestro school of Toscanini, Szell and von Karajan — in search of the definitive Brahms Second or Mahler Third, building a solid, often magnificent, architectural framework for everything he conducted and not straying from it. Nelsons’ performances seem more like a Bernsteinian exploration — the performance you hear at Tanglewood might be totally different than the one you hear during the subscription season. Both the Levine and Nelsons approaches can be thrilling in their own right.

But that’s hardly the only difference. Levine was in ill health, an absentee landlord with a predilection for harsh, atonal music of the 20th and 21st centuries. He was also belatedly accused of sexually abusing teenagers.

Nelsons, on the other hand, is young, personable on the podium and leans to the tonal in contemporary music. It’s been said many times but bears repeating: Levine loved the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern and hated the more musically melodic Shostakovich. Levine devoted much of his attention regarding contemporary music to Elliott Carter, a critical favorite but not an audience beckoner. Nelsons has none of Levine’s faves programmed with the BSO this year except for Schoenberg’s more accessible “Verklärte Nacht,” which will be performed by the BSO and Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, Nelsons’ other orchestra, when they come to town in October. And in further contrast with Levine, when all is said and done, he will have conducted the definitive set of Shostakovich symphonies.

Andris Nelsons conducting the BSO. (Courtesy Marco Borggreve)
Andris Nelsons conducting the BSO. (Courtesy Marco Borggreve)

That Nelsons and the BSO even landed that contract is a big feather in their caps. His Bruckner recordings for DG with the Gewandhaus Orchestra aren’t always as consistently exciting as his Shostakovich, but many of them are first-rate. I would happily go to any concert during which he’s performing Bruckner. His complete set of Beethoven symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic comes out next month.

His taste in contemporary music is more tonal though those distinctions are certainly not as stark as they were 50 years ago. They don’t even apply to someone like Thomas Adès, who is another enormous feather in the BSO’s cap. He is one of the most important composers in the world — some would argue the most — and he’s entering his third year as the BSO’s artistic partner, not really a composer in residence since he also serves as conductor and pianist, but his affiliation with the orchestra is as important in its own way as the Shostakovich recordings are.

BSO Managing Director Mark Volpe, Artistic Administrator Tony Fogg and the orchestra began the relationship with Adès before Nelsons was hired, but his appointment had Nelsons’ blessing and it’s typical of the conductor’s eclectic taste in contemporary music.

If Nelsons, then, has become a solid presence as the BSO leader, how exciting is he as both a musical and cultural presence in Boston? To my tastes, not nearly exciting enough.

First of all, excitement is not in the BSO’s DNA. Part of that is in the nature of classical music audiences. Where theater audiences, for example, hunger for contemporary work and increasingly expect that work to be diverse, classical music audiences clamor more for the oldies of the 18th and 19th centuries. Beyond that, don’t forget that this is an organization that turned down Leonard Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas in favor of more conservative choices, Charles Munch and Seiji Ozawa.

While those two conductors certainly have their champions, particularly Munch, neither achieved the rock star status of Bernstein in New York, Tilson Thomas in San Francisco, Christoph von Dohnányi in Cleveland, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Gustavo Dudamel in Los Angeles or Marin Alsop in Baltimore. Beyond celebrity, those conductors achieved a bond with the orchestras and the cities that transcended music-making.

Nelsons isn’t in that league yet and may not even want to be. If not, that’s a shame because I think he could be.

One of the most moving commentaries I heard from the arts world about Trump’s election was Nelsons’ address to the BSO audience shortly after Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the 2016 election, talking about the darkness that Eastern Europe has endured in difficult times of political transition. He was also an extremely winning presence on the podium when he and Bernstein’s daughter, Jamie, collaborated on a Young People’s Concert during last year’s centennial celebration or when he spoke about separating the art from the artist in a Tanglewood Learning Institute panel on Wagner this summer.

That’s the Nelsons I would like to see more of -- a forceful presence in Boston who’s willing to put himself out there and drag the BSO into the 21st century in all its musical, political and racial diversity.

That’s the Nelsons I would like to see more of — a forceful presence in Boston who’s willing to put himself out there and drag the BSO into the 21st century in all its musical, political and racial diversity. And I think Nelsons could do it. His English isn’t the best. There was the time that he put his foot in his mouth around a broad question about sexual abuse in the classical music world. But when he has talked about music and life in the time of Trump, or in the time of Wagner, his words have been strong and direct.

To be that kind of presence, he has to become more of a Bostonian, someone you see around town at other events — a la the ArtsEmerson or Huntington Theatre Company folks, who have nurtured local theater actors and organizations.

Given the demands on 21st-century jet-setting maestros that’s not easy. For starters, Nelsons has recording demands in Leipzig and Vienna, all of which burnish his reputation in Boston. Still, as Dudamel (for one) has proven by forging alliances with musicians like Herbie Hancock and being closely associated with his city, it’s not impossible, particularly if he had an assistant to further his more local goals, the way Tilson Thomas did when he was the young assistant conductor for the BSO in the early ‘70s, pre-Ozawa.

I absolutely believe that Andris Nelsons has proved to be a good choice for the BSO in his first five years. Now I’m hoping for the day when I can say that Andris Nelsons was a great choice for the BSO.

Related:

Ed Siegel Twitter Critic-At-Large
Now retired and contributing as a critic-at-large, Ed Siegel was the editor of The ARTery.

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