Andris Nelsons, 34, Named BSO's 15th Music Director

Andris Nelsons leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Tchaikovsky's "Symphony No. 5" on Jan. 31, 2013 at Symphony Hall in Boston. (Stu Rosner via BSO)
Andris Nelsons leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Tchaikovsky's "Symphony No. 5" on Jan. 31, 2013 at Symphony Hall in Boston. (Stu Rosner via BSO)

BOSTON — There’s big news out of Symphony Hall.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra has appointed a new music director more than two years after James Levine was forced to step down. Thursday morning the BSO’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously for 34-year-old Latvian-born conductor Andris Nelsons to fill the void left by Levine, according to BSO managing director Mark Volpe.

Volpe acknowledged how young the new maestro is.

“Well, young with a ton of experience,” he clarified, listing off some of Nelsons' accomplishments. “I mean he’s been conducting Berlin, Vienna, Amsterdam, Covent Garden Royal Opera House, Vienna State Opera, Munich, the New York Philharmonic and Boston Symphony. He has enormous experience with frankly big-time orchestras and big-time opera companies.”

Still, Volpe said the decision wasn’t made easily. “Well, it’s a process..." — a process he said because the 12-person search committee had to please a diverse group of constituents, including the board of trustees, the BSO musicians and, ultimately, the subscribers. Volpe himself was won over by Nelsons’ presence.

“Well he has enormous energy,” Volpe noted. “There’s certainly musical integrity and intelligence, but his primary focus is on releasing the music. He’s a very visceral conductor. Very physical.” And Volpe added, “He’s a big guy — like many Latvians — and I think he’s such a natural, innate conductor.”

Nelsons has conducted the BSO a number of times. He debuted when he filled in at Carnegie Hall in 2011 when Levine was forced to cancel because of his recurring back problems. Nelsons also performed at Tanglewood and Symphony Hall.

“Firstly I’m really very excited and honored about the decision of the Boston Symphony Orchestra,” Nelsons said from his hotel room in Amsterdam, calling the BSO one of the world’s best.

Nelsons said chemistry between himself and the orchestra was palpable, and it’s critical. “Music is about opening your heart, and you can’t open your heart if you don’t feel connected with the people you are performing with,” he explained.

And Nelsons joked when asked about how it feels to be the BSO’s youngest music director in a century. “I will not be as young anymore next year, and this will pass,” he replied, laughing.

As for programming, Nelsons says he has a lot of ideas, but hasn’t started any actual planning with the BSO since he won’t start his job until the 2014-'15 season. He did comment on his predecessor, saying it’s an honor to be following in the footsteps of Levine. But he admitted it’s daunting too.

“It makes of course a big pressure — as well as excitement — because it’s a great responsibility. But I think as we experience the chemistry of the orchestra, and we know how we feel about each other, I believe that we will have a great journey together and I’m looking forward to that.”

“There is something very exciting about having a young, not entirely formed conductor, but who is dynamic,” Lloyd Schwartz, a longtime classical music reviewer, said when he heard the news about Nelsons.

Schwartz didn’t expect the BSO’s decision to come down this soon because he’s heard rumblings that the orchestra wasn’t pleased with the candidate pool. Schwartz has seen Nelsons at the podium and said the young conductor is energetic and interesting, but still he admitted to having reservations.

“I don’t think he’s terrible,” Schwartz said, adding, “ I think he’s really promising. And there’s some courage on the part of BSO to go with someone who isn’t all the way there yet as a musician.”

Schwartz said the BSO mustered the same kind of courage when they appointed Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa in 1973, who stayed on for 29 years. Initially Nelsons' contract is for five years. The conductor also leads the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the U.K.

Audiences will have a chance to see Nelsons in action for themselves when he leads the orchestra at Tanglewood this summer. Incidentally, James Levine is making his return to the podium this weekend to lead the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York.

This post was updated with the All Things Considered feature version.

This article was originally published on May 16, 2013.

This program aired on May 16, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Andrea Shea Correspondent, Arts & Culture
Andrea Shea is a correspondent for WBUR's arts & culture reporter.



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