BOSTON – So it begins. Andris Nelsons took to the Symphony Hall podium Thursday night looking like a cross between the kid in the candy store and the knight with the magic potion. The Boston Symphony Orchestra hasn’t exactly been in the doldrums lately. Christoph von Dohnanyi and Thomas Adès, just recently, conducted superb concerts.
Leadership, though is something else and both the orchestra and the BSO faithful have been looking for a guiding personality. By the same token the orchestra and the sold-out audience were primed for music director designate Nelsons to take that role, as he did with an impressive if somewhat uneven performance (repeated Friday afternoon and Saturday night).
He certainly has the energy for the job, not only in his power-walk to the podium but in the pace of his conducting. And the grace of his conducting. He began with a lush “Siegfried Idyll,” drawing out colors in the music that I didn’t know were in Wagner’s music.
It really does look as if Nelsons is drawing out the music, too, crouching one moment, holding onto the podium with his left hand the next as he seems to be coaxing glorious sounds from the horns at the back of the stage — not that such superb musicians need much coaxing.
Here's some of the BSO's video from Thursday night:
Stylistically he’s 180 degrees different from previous artistic director James Levine, even when it comes to fashion. He and soloist Paul Lewis were both wearing baggy black shirts, as if to announce not only a new dress code but a new, less stodgy spirit in the hall. You expected them to fist-bump instead of clasp hands.
Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 was hardly stodgy, either, a fast-paced march through the music. Lewis wasn’t stopping to smell the roses, but rushing Wolfgang through the park in search of Mrs. Mozart. Lewis is a prodigious talent, but I could have used more roses and less caffeine.
If Nelsons really wanted to prove himself a Bostonian he should have come out at intermission and pulled an Elaine Stritch, announcing the Red Sox score — Boston, 4-0 at the time. Stritch endeared herself to her Colonial Theatre audience during the seventh game against the Yankees in 2004, with updates of the Red Sox eventual historic win.
Nelsons, though, seemed to be on a mission, picking up the Brahms Third with the same adrenaline rush as in the Mozart. It was too fast, at first, trying to show that Brahms had hair on his chest as well as his face. He settled down, though, in the lovely middle movements and the finale was as exciting as any Brahms Third I’ve heard. It lacked Levine’s architectural structuring, but it was no less thrilling in the end.
The chemistry he has with the orchestra seems tangible. No matter what the pace, they followed him impeccably through Wagnerian idylls and Brahmsian fireworks.
We still don’t know what the age of Andris will be. How much 20th and 21st century will there be? Can he pick up American musical idioms as von Dohnanyi did with the Cleveland Orchestra?
We’ll see. This is just a pit stop before he announces what next season will look like.
For now, Boston is happy. A patron on the way out said to her husband (or escort), “The only thing he needs to work on is his shirt.” My Aunt Betty, in situations like that, was known to say, “Couldn’t they have put a tie on him?”
She wouldn’t have been happy with the new spirit at Symphony Hall. Her nephew was pretty impressed though. For now. But let's wait until next year before jumping to any conclusions.
This program aired on October 18, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.