Andris Nelsons And The BSO: The Beginning Of A Beautiful Relationship?

Andris Nelsons, Yo-Yo Ma and the Boston Symphony Orchestra following their performance of Prokofiev. (Stu Rosner)
Andris Nelsons, Yo-Yo Ma and the Boston Symphony Orchestra following their performance of Prokofiev. (Stu Rosner)

Honeymoon suites don’t come any nicer than Symphony Hall, at least if you’re a classical music conductor. And the Boston Symphony Orchestra crowds this fall are still very much in the honeymoon phase of their relationship with new music director Andris Nelsons. Critics, too, are inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

I’d go a step beyond that and say that I’m very much in, well, like with the young, new maestro. His concerts have been engaging and enjoyable; it’s fun to see him up on the podium.

Of course, BSO patrons are glad to see any new music director on the podium after the James Levine illnesses and the long journey to finding a replacement. And there is still some wooing to do with Nelsons, as rumors swirl that the Berlin Philharmonic will be proposing to him before too long as Simon Rattle prepares to depart in 2018.

OK, we better leave the honeymoon analogies behind before we get to the “ecstasy” part of the equation with Nelsons. And that will be the question for Nelsons as time goes on — will there be the kind of ecstatic bond among conductor-orchestra-audience-critics that there has been with Michael Tilson Thomas and San Francisco; Christoph von Dohnanyi and Cleveland; Esa-Pekka Salonen and Los Angeles (which Gustavo Dudamel seems to have inherited).

It’s way too early to talk about that, but I like what I see so far, even if not every piece has been beautifully composed or flawlessly performed.

In many ways, for better or worse, Nelsons is the anti-Levine. His taste in contemporary music is far more eclectic. He’s new(er) school in terms of dress and demeanor (as well as in more substantial areas that we’ll get to). He’s as playful as Levine was controlled.

The podium style translates into a seemingly different philosophy as well. The late Pulitzer Prize winner in composition, Stephen Albert, described the difference between Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein’s conducting styles like this: Von Karajan looked as if he were drawing the music out of the musicians; Bernstein looked as if the music was flowing out of him into the musicians. That translated into what we were hearing as well.

James Levine conducts the BSO in Mahler's Eighth Symphony. (Michael Lutch/AP)
James Levine conducts the BSO in Mahler's Eighth Symphony. (Michael Lutch/AP)

Nelsons looks as if he’s dancing along with the BSO, as if he’s at the disco and they’re the house band. (Even if we know that DJ Andris had established the beat in rehearsals.) Levine was wonderful to watch in a quieter way, as if every smile or tip of the baton was imparting great wisdom.

How does this translate into what we’re hearing? I always got the sense that Levine was leading the BSO into what he thought was THE perfect Mahler’s Third or Brahms’ Fourth. I get the sense watching Nelsons that he’s leading the BSO into what feels like what comes naturally that day. The difference between his Brahms’ Third from last season’s concerts and last summer’s Tanglewood performance was substantial. Some, Jeremy Eichler for one, preferred the first version; I was more taken with last summer’s.

Had it been Levine, he would have been building on the previous season's performance; Nelsons seemed to be starting from scratch. With Levine I felt a sense of revelation; with Nelsons a sense of discovery.

There was a sense of architecture in Levine’s conducting — every note was leading to the next one with every musical hair in place. The result, particularly with Mahler, could be breathtaking. Nelsons is more apt to lose that line, though most often gets it back and gets it back in exciting fashion, as with his Sibelius Second Symphony. But not always. His “Rite of Spring” was a disappointing series of fits and starts. (The forthcoming CD of Sibelius's Second, taken mostly from a later concert, is consistently excellent.)

Still, the Mahlerian epics aside, I prefer Nelsons’ programming. (I didn’t hear Nelsons conducting the BSO in Mahler’s Ninth, which reportedly made him a top contender for the job.)

I love Pierre Boulez, but Symphony Hall seemed the wrong place for Levine’s similarly spiky attitudes toward 20th and 21st Century music. I hope that Nelsons’ appetite for the music of our time continues to be as rich as it has been, from the accessibility of Christopher Rouse (last summer at Tanglewood) to the more rigorous strains of Sofia Gubaidulina.

Of his four subscription concerts this fall the only one I didn’t care for was “The Rite” with Tchaikovsky’s “Hamlet” overture and the American premiere of Brett Dean’s enjoyable but light “Dramatis Personae” with Nelsons’ good buddy, Håkan Hardenberger, in the first half.

Andris Nelsons led the BSO in Beethoven, Bartok, and Tchaikovsky in his first subscription program of the 2014-15 season, (Winslow Townson)
Andris Nelsons led the BSO in Beethoven, Bartok, and Tchaikovsky in his first subscription program of the 2014-15 season, (Winslow Townson)

The other three were fascinating for different reasons. Beethoven’s Eighth, Bartók’s “Miraculous Mandarin” and Tchaikovsky’s Sixth showed off the great versatility of the orchestra and the powerful, emotional range of Nelsons’ conducting. Gubaidulina’s “Offertorium” and Sibelius’s Second Symphony showed a different kind of range, underscoring his ongoing interest in Eastern European and Scandinavian music. Why not, given his Latvian roots and the richness of music from that neck of the woods? (The Sibelius Second Symphony anchors Nelsons’ first recording with the BSO.)

Last week’s was my favorite — two short, contemporary pieces by local hero John Harbison and a world premiere by Latvian hero Ēriks Ešenvalds, both showing off the wonders of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. And talk about local heroes — Yo-Yo Ma followed with a scintillating version of Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto for Cello and Orchestra.

Yo-Yo Ma, Andris Nelsons and the BSO. (Stu Rosner)
Yo-Yo Ma, Andris Nelsons and the BSO. (Stu Rosner)

All of which was prelude for Rachmaninoff’s ode to Edgar Allan Poe (not two folks you normally think of together) in “The Bells,” a beautiful performance featuring three remarkable but not widely known soloists — Pavel Černoch, Kostas Smoriganas and, be still my heart, Victoria Yastrebova. I’d go see these three sing anything, even “Cats” or “Les Miz.” On second thought, don’t hold me to that.

Nelsons will be back in April with Mahler’s Sixth and Shostakovich’s Tenth. (Yes, Dmitri, it’s safe for you to come back to Symphony Hall now that James Levine is gone.) Two more local composers will be there as well — the almost diametrically opposed Michael Gandolfi and Gunther Schuller. Two great soloists, Christian Tetzlaff (Beethoven) and Richard Goode (Mozart) will be there too. With apologies to Mel Brooks, Springtime for Andris looks promising as well.

Someone once wrote that a performance of a Sibelius symphony was perfectly straightforward but that the gates of heaven didn’t open at the end. Nelsons’ performance of the Sibelius Second was not so straightforward. But the gates of heaven were indeed wide open, at least for me.

And the paths to heaven that don't follow the straight and narrow are always the most interesting.


Radio Open Source

Lloyd Schwartz: Warm Welcome — Andris Nelsons takes charge of the BSO

Alex Ross: Andris Nelsons Energizes The Boston Symphony

Andris Nelsons Brings A More Contemporary Look To Tanglewood

Fast Times At Symphony Hall With Andris Nelsons

Grimaud And Nelsons Combine For Fiery Brahms

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Ed Siegel Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.



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