BOSTON — It’s been a long time coming, but Thursday night Andris Nelsons finally gets to lead the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the first time since being named music director last May.
The 34-year-old Latvian conductor flew in earlier this week to rehearse with BSO musicians at Symphony Hall, where they got to know each other a little bit better.
This momentous and symbolic occasion was supposed to happen at Tanglewood in July, but an accident in Bayreuth, Germany resulted in a concussion for Nelsons just days before his scheduled debut. The injury forced him to bow out, which induced a few flashbacks of his predecessor James Levine's numerous health-related cancellations.
Fans and critics eager to check out the BSO's new hire were disappointed. So were the orchestra's board members, management and especially its players, including musician James Sommerville. The orchestra has been playing without a music director for two and a half years.
"It’s like an ocean liner," Sommerville mused during a break in rehearsal. "So it will keep going in the same direction and as long as there are no icebergs in the way we’re fine for a while. But certainly in terms of where our next port of call is — I guess musically to kind of over-extend the metaphor — it’s super important to have the music director."
That’s why this rehearsal is such a big deal. Sommerville is the BSO’s principal horn and he says it’s hard to describe how it feels to finally be working with Nelsons.
“It’s just kind of a relief as much as anything. And I think it’s made more so that way because of the kind of person Andris is,” Sommerville explained. “He really kind of radiates this personal warmth. And I think that’s what drew a lot of us in the orchestra to him in the first place.”
On stage, Nelsons and the musicians worked through Brahms' Symphony No. 3. Sommerville, who has been with the BSO for almost 16 years, has an iconic horn line in the piece. He said their new conductor’s style falls somewhere between the orchestra's last two music directors. Seiji Ozawa was incredibly physical, like a dancer. James Levine sat on a stool but was very verbal.
“He really kind of radiates this personal warmth. And I think that’s what drew a lot of us in the orchestra to him.”
“We’ll need more time with Andris to know exactly who he is,” the musician said. “But, you know, people, when they see him on the podium, they’ll see he’s a big presence and he moves a lot and you see a lot of the music coming out in his gestures and his body.”
Nelsons smiles a lot at the podium. He sweeps his long arms and stabs the air with his baton. Sometimes the young conductor makes silly, ecstatic faces or crouches down like he's ready to pounce. The musicians laugh a few times during rehearsal, but they seem to be sizing up their new maestro, too. When Nelsons talks through Brahms' composition, he uses imagery and metaphors.
“Sometimes it can be the most strange and naïve and even stupid things you can compare and it has nothing to do with the particular music,” the conductor said. For him, making music is about channeling emotion and fantasy. But he admits this first rehearsal feels very real.
“It’s a special feeling and a special excitement and a special nervousness about it as well because it’s a responsibility, it’s an expectation,” Nelsons said.
He compared it to starting any new relationship — you have to build true trust and hope for acceptance.
“That the orchestra accepts me for who I am — with my pluses and minuses — and I accept the orchestra with its strengths,” the music director started to say, then caught himself and added with a little laugh, “and of course, strengths.”
BSO managing director Mark Volpe appreciates his new music director’s humble humor and approach. He called Nelsons' style sweet and authentic.
"He uses the word naïve. I think it’s a real sign of maturity. I mean, this is a guy who’s been conducting Berlin, Vienna, Concertgebouw, certainly in America the Philharmonic, the Met, us," Volpe said. "So he’s got a wealth of experience for a guy that young. That being said, there’s still this childlike enthusiasm for what he does.”
Longtime classical music critic Keith Powers calls Nelsons an investment in the BSO’s future. Now that he's had a chance to see the new music director in action, he believes the orchestra made the right choice by choosing someone they can grow with. Even so, Powers said he still has plenty of questions for the BSO.
“How will it look five years from now? Who will the primary composers be that Nelsons and the orchestra is known for? Who will the commissions be?”
And of course there's the big, critical question: Will tickets sell?
Sommerville acknowledges the list of unknowns, but one of his big hopes is that the BSO will go on tour more with Nelsons at the helm. He's Latvian and has ample experience in the European classical scene.
"I think what we’re really looking forward to is really making the BSO an international ensemble again, as it was for decades and decades,” Sommerville explained. “But, you know, our presence abroad and our presence as a recording orchestra, those have diminished a little bit. But I think he’s really the person to move us back into that global limelight.”
Nelsons said he wants the same things for the BSO — and a lot more. Right now, though, he’s committed to nurturing his bond with the BSO and its audience. The conductor officially starts his job here next fall, but because of his commitment to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England, he won’t be Boston’s exclusive maestro until the end of summer 2015.
Andris Nelsons performs a program of Wagner, Mozart and Brahms with the BSO Thursday through Saturday
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This program aired on October 17, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.