In connection with the story on the appointment of Andris Nelsons as the next music director of the BSO, BMInt had an interesting conversation with artistic administrator Tony Fogg about the way he works with conductors and his expectations for Nelsons’ tenure.
Lee Eiseman: Since 2006, when James Levine tore his rotator cuff and became undependable, you’ve had a tremendous role in repertoire and personnel. Does the appointment of the new music director allow the artistic administrator to contemplate relaxing a bit?
Tony Fogg: [Laughter] Well, relaxing—that’s a great prospect!
The period of James Levine’s declining health was very stressful for everyone—most particularly the orchestra. It was distressing from the audience’s point of view to see someone clearly, and publicly, suffering as much as he did. And his withdrawal from performances was undeniably an extra burden for those of us in the administration who often had to deal with last-minute rearrangements of plans. Cancellations always happen. But to have them with such concentration, and with someone who was as important as Jimmy was to our musical lives, was a difficult situation.
I’m looking forward to being able really to start planning for the next several seasons. It was a great relief to sit down with Andris’ manager and, at least, take a first look at blocking out periods of time for him here in Boston over the next five seasons. When we know the weeks during which our music director is going to be present, we can then approach the various guest conductors with whom we want to collaborate. To start to work with Andris, to think about what his big projects will be over the next four seasons, is very exciting for all of us.
It must be very different when you’re working with a music director instead of with individual conductors who are guests—no matter how distinguished they are, and I assume that a music director will put his own imprint on seasons and planning more than a guest conductor would.
There are purely pragmatic or factual dimensions to this issue. If a music director is here for ten or twelve weeks of the season, then that is one set of ongoing conversations. Planning ten or twelve programs with conductor is very different to planning one or two programs with five or six conductors. You can, in a certain way, give a quite different set of directions and emphases. Also when we’re working with a guest conductor, invariably it’s the issue of finding the balance between what we need in the season – to try and create a good balance overall—and being responsive to his or her musical interests. The process with any music director is more organic.
Does the music director often have any thoughts on who the guest conductors will be and what he wants to hear from them?
With Jim, even before his tenure began formally, Mark [Volpe, BSO managing director] and I presented a list which included conductors with whom the orchestra had been working in past seasons (our ongoing relationships), as well as names of others we hadn’t seen and would like to. Jimmy basically gave his imprimatur to that. He wanted the BSO to work with absolutely the best conductors available. With regard to program planning with guest conductors, in discussions with the guests I would always keep in mind the areas of repertoire that were of was particularly interest to Jim and that may want to include in his own programs. Jim always wanted a guest conductor to come and present repertoire about which he or she was most excited. There were times over the years where a guest would suggest a work that I know Jim would probably at some point or other like to do. Invariably Jim’s response would be: ‘Please go ahead and confirm that for the guest, and we’ll find a time to schedule the piece again with me in a few seasons’ time.’ I’m anticipating that we’re going to have much the same relationship with Andris. We’ve talked a little bit about the great guest conductors that we have coming to the BSO, and he’s certainly seen the brochures of the last several seasons, so he’s got a good sense of our regular collaborators.
Do you think that Nelsons has a direction in which he wants to take the BSO in terms of sound and in terms of repertoire?
His repertoire interests are extremely catholic, when you look at his programs elsewhere. This fact has certainly been reflected in all our discussions, including the conversations that the musician members of the search committee had with him as recently as last weekend. He’s got very diverse taste, with perhaps some particular focus on the Germanic traditions but also Russian, Slavonic and middle European works. He has a wide-ranging interest in contemporary music. I think it would be premature to say that he has any particular repertoire focus in mind for us. He certainly likes the idea of variety and of well-balanced programs.
Is there a particular sound that he’s apt to want to ask for?
I can only speak to my impressions of the type of sound that he’s achieved—the quality of the sound he’s realized—with the BSO in the performances that he’s given so far. And this is always very subjective, of course. It’s vibrant and rich, with a wide range of dynamics that adds a certain power of expression to the colors that he uses. I was reminded of this last weekend when I heard him conduct the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the Shostakovich 7th Symphony in London, particularly in the middle movements which are the more reflective and ruminative in character. He shaped and balanced these with enormous subtlety and with great finesse. These are the hallmarks of his music making and I think they are the qualities that he will bring to the type of sound that he will draw from the BSO.
The BSO is blessed to play here in this acoustically remarkable space, Symphony Hall, and doesn’t need to force the sound in any way. And the more time that Andris spends here with the orchestra, the more he will gain even greater sense of the coloristic possibilities of our great ensemble.
In terms of style, for instance, we haven’t heard an awful lot of Bach in recent years and I personally have the feeling that the BSO does not need to cede Bach to the early music practitioners and while there have been a handful of Bach passions there’s an awful lot of Bach that used to be played and I wonder whether Nelsons has any history in modern orchestra versions of music of that period.
Looking at his schedules, I don’t think that Bach has featured prominently in Andris’ programming, but I could be wrong.
Considering this question in a wider context, though, I don’t think we should be looking to any one conductor to be able to cover the entire range of the repertoire. Certainly Jimmy had areas of the repertoire in which he was not personally interested, even though he thought it important that these were covered by the guest conductors. We’d always talked about wanting to do Bach but time didn’t allow that to happen.
I think the musical scene in Boston is quite different now to how it was 50 or 60 years ago. You mentioned the notion of handing over responsibility to the specialist groups. I think it must be acknowledged there are now many more very fine ensembles covering that period of the repertoire than there were five or six decades ago, when it was probably more the responsibility of the BSO to play everything. But that has changed. You have noted we’ve done both the St. Matthew and the St. John Passions in recent seasons and there have been reasonably regular visits from conductors like Ton Koopman who bring another perspective to performance practice at the BSO. It’s all a matter of balance. Each season has a different profile.
In terms of repertoire I also have a question of to what extent is Nelsons going to be involved in the Boston cultural community, how long is he going to live here, is he going to be playing a lot of our local composers as the orchestra has done with Harbison and Schuller and the like, and has there been discussion in how much he’ll be involved in the local scene other than simply arriving and conducting.
I think these are all questions which time will answer. Next season, which is a season where he’s Music Director Designate, he wants to try and get to know the city a little better. He’s very interested to get to know the neighborhoods of Boston then make some decision about where he would like to be based. His wife Kristine Opolais is going to be at the Met for two productions each season for the next five years and so will be on the East coast for about three months of the year. A home for them here in Boston may make a lot of sense but these are all family decisions. As to the question of Boston composers, this is a whole area that we are still to explore. His programs elsewhere suggest a wide range of stylistic interests in terms of contemporary music. Not surprisingly, these have been mainly European living composers. The composers whose music he’s championed often include Paul Rouders, Mark Anthony Turnage, Jorg Widmann, Dalbavie, Lindberg, H.K. Gruber, Sally Beamish, my [Australian] compatriot Brett Dean. That’s a pretty eclectic mix. He is very interested in getting to know a range of American styles, especially the marvelous composers who are based here in Boston.
Are there any neglected works of the past that he has shown any affinity for?
Again, I think it’s early days, still.
Though not a ‘neglected’ composer, per se, Jim Levine doesn’t have a personal affinity for Bruckner’s music and it didn’t feature in any of his programs, though it has been included in the programs of guests. We had a wonderful Bruckner 4th this season with Dohnányi, the 7th a couple of years ago with Masur, and so on. Andris has mentioned that he’s interested in, perhaps, doing Bruckner with us, though this is just one idea. There are many, many possibilities.
Will he be contractually obligated to spend a certain number of days in Boston ultimately?
No, our arrangement with him is for a number of weeks per season, which is the standard way of expressing this. In his first full season as music director, which is the ’14-’15 season, he’ll be here for anywhere between eight and ten weeks, we’re working on that at the moment. And thereafter for twelve weeks. That is literally half of the subscription season, so it’s a very significant commitment. He’ll be at Tanglewood for at least two weekends of programs—we hope more.
Nelsons recently said in an interview that he’s a fan of Michael Jackson and Sting. Will there be a firewall between his pop tastes and his symphonic tastes?
[Laughter] Well, I honestly don’t know how often he listens to Michael Jackson or Sting! I’m sure whoever asked about that was curious about other aspects of Nelsons’ musical interests—and not thinking that it might prompt a question like this for me!
So you don’t think the BSO is about to become a world music presenter?
We have a great orchestra with an amazing tradition and I think we’ve got someone here who’s just going to take that to the next level of refinement.
Ok, my last question: Can you tell us why the search took so long.
Well, that’s an interesting question. Our business works in very long, slow cycles. Typically, we plan in an active three-season horizon. And you know, the great conductors and soloists of our time have long-term commitments. The search process I think quite properly wanted to allow the opportunity to see some conductors for more than one visit, to be certain that the chemistry was right. Maybe some orchestras operate in different ways but I think our way was somewhat more deliberative. It may have been frustrating at time that this took so long, but in the end it’s a fantastic outcome and a unified decision.
20 years from now will you be able to tell me whether Andris Nelsons was the first choice?
No need to wait 20 years. I can tell you now that he was absolutely our first choice.