in: News & Features

June 26, 2013

Nelsons Inks BSO Link

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A delighted Andris Nelsons (Stu Rosner)

A delighted Andris Nelsons (Stu Rosner)

In yesterday’s genial, semipublic Symphony Hall gathering, devoid of any traditional ceremony, the 34-year-old Latvian Andris Nelsons was installed as the 15th conductor of the BSO (and the third youngest after the 31-year-old founding conductor Georg Henschel in 1881 and the 33-year-old Arthur Nikisch in 1889). More like an Oprah show than a coronation, Nelsons was “reeled in,” in the words of BSO Chairman Ted Kelley, before executing his contract with a pen made of old wood from the stage floor. A 45-minute discussion ensued with Nelsons and BSO Managing Director Mark Volpe arrayed in a pair of comfortable floral wing chairs.

It seemed symbolic that this event took place on a platform halfway between the level of the orchestra floor and the stage, and one might reasonably conclude that management places its role and that of the conductor as mediators between audience and players. Nevertheless, a bit more grandeur was wanted—in part because the seated Nelsons and Volpe would have been easier to see from a loftier perch on the stage, but also because there is yearning for indications of leadership, as well as accommodation.

Not much was disclosed from Volpe’s interview of Nelsons other than that Nelsons was pleased and astonished to have been placed in this new position, that he has a good command of English and that he is comfortable communicating with the various local communities.

As for future repertoire, he told us that he likes the mainstream Germanic from Haydn to Mahler and that we could expect a lot more Bruckner. From his other favorite rep, Russian/Slavic, we can expect a lot more Shostakovich than we heard from James Levine (zero)—maybe even Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (this response to an audience question came after Nelsons′ subtly conferred with Volpe). We should also expect some works of French composers, because of the BSO’s affinity for this realm. Nelsons also told us that since he’s a singer by training, we can expect a liberal amount of choral/vocal music. Reaching out through recordings, both CDs and electronic, is part of the conductor’s plan, as well as playing music of our own time (though not enough to annoy audiences) and commissioning.

What we did not detect from Nelsons was command and vision. Surely, even though he probably has a former Soviet’s abhorrence of five-year plans, he could have conveyed a sense of mission that was less vague. He didn’t volunteer the name of a single piece he was dying to perform, or any soloists with whom he wanted to collaborate. But surely there is no rush for these revelations. When we see the brochure for Nelsons’ first season a year from now, his plan for the orchestra will be manifest. In the meanwhile, he will surely be working with Mark Volpe, Artistic Administrator Tony Fogg, and perhaps even delegations from subscribers (gasp, he seems to care what we think) and from the players.

Nelsons is a very likable and self-depreciating man who seems to balance self, place and family deftly. He told us that he is not a podium dictator in the mode of Szell or Reiner (he did not mention Levine). For him it is important to have rapport and collegiality with players, management, and audience. Not a bad start at all.

Later in the day Nelsons showed collegiality with other players as Pedro Martinez offer pointers. (Stu Rosner photo)

Later in the day Nelsons showed collegiality with other players as Pedro Martinez offered pointers. (Stu Rosner photo)

20 Comments

  1. Too bad the BSO audience is annoyed by new music. That’s one way to kill the art form – or perhaps, it’s a sign that it’s already dead.

    Comment by Mark — June 26, 2013 at 8:31 am

  2. The current audience might be annoyed by new music. A number of other orchestras and conductors have shown that there is another audience that is interested enough to attend concerts of new music. One hopes for some overlap with the current audience, perhaps, but surely if one wants to attract people who haven’t been interested in older, more established repertoire, is it really necessary for everything to appeal to everyone all the time?

    Maybe more adventurous programming doesn’t belong on a 22-concert subscription series. That’s a huge investment for someone who just wants to find out what these new composers are about. Maybe a separate set of one-off concerts, or even (gasp) tickets to hear the same thing twice — it’s a truism that a new piece makes more sense the second time it’s played and the second time you hear it.

    Comment by Mark Fishman — June 26, 2013 at 5:21 pm

  3. The upcoming Tanglewood programs sure look unusually tired to me; I was having trouble finding things I want to go out of my way to listen to online. As for segregated programing, I generally enjoy the venerable steak/broccoli approach, although it’s sometimes scorned. Last season’s BSO Ades concert is just one example, and there were many similar under Levine. I mean, study LAPhil and others. I bet Nelsons will have good ideas in this regard. There’s no reason some Carter pieces (and many by truly contemporary composers) cannot be incorporated into the repertory as Barber and Tippett or indeed Golijov and Gubaidulina have been — sort of. Repetition, etc.

    Comment by David Moran — June 26, 2013 at 8:06 pm

  4. I was at Faneuil hall on Tuesday when Nelsons appeared, briefly, to conduct the BSO brass in Mussorgsky’s “The Great Gate of Kiev.” I was favorably impressed by his lack of pretension and his candid demeanor. Also, it’s lovely from my point of view to have someone with a background in early music leading that orchestra.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — June 27, 2013 at 1:54 pm

  5. One of the most welcome comments that Nelsons made at the Tuesday signing/presentation was in response to a question about what a prospective attendee should do — if anything — in preparation before a concert. In one of Nelsons’ more definitive statements, he answered that it really does not matter; a concert goer should just listen and not worry about foreknowledge, but simply be open to responding to the music. This, it seems to me, would be especially important in encouraging larger audiences (via PR) but could be equally applicable to the presentation of new music. Lloyd Schwartz pointed out recently that it will be the death of an orchestra if it does NOT include new music (a clever twist on that tired aphorism). Hear, hear.

    I asked about Latvian music, given that the BSO and other orchestras are moving more and more into the fine Baltic repertoire — and I referred to the old WCRB program, “Spotlight on Latvia” (anyone remember it?) — for which there evidently is a complete archive of programming. (Robert Kirzinger had told me before the event that the BSO indeed has performed a piece by a Latvian composer — once.) Nelsons pointed out that Latvia is a tiny country, then raised the possibility of more Sibelius. So I eagerly await Nelsons’s program decisions and hope the BSO admin and board encourage him in giving us the fine 20th- and 21st-century music coming out of the Baltic and Scandinavian countries. All we have to do is listen.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — June 27, 2013 at 4:37 pm

  6. The BBC has a link to recent concerts in Birmingham with Nelsons: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b02yk14t

    Comment by Stephen Marcus — June 28, 2013 at 12:39 pm

  7. Ha, what an unsubtle stick, like high school — just follow me and do what I indicate:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=esD90diWZds

    I love it, and the orchestra doesn’t seem to mind.

    Comment by david moran — June 28, 2013 at 10:09 pm

  8. I still think it’s insulting for him to refuse to dress up to something at least approaching the level of the orchestra.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — June 29, 2013 at 2:48 pm

  9. “In one of Nelsons’ more definitive statements, he answered that it really does not matter; a concert goer should just listen and not worry about foreknowledge, but simply be open to responding to the music. This, it seems to me, would be especially important in encouraging larger audiences (ia PR) but could be equally applicable to the presentation of new music.”

    I am afraid this misspoke of what Nelsons meant.

    ‘Sophiscated’ listeners or scholars are often obsessed with the background, or in other word gossip, of a work from the core repertoire. It is truly non-essential to know things like the compose took a summer vacation in 18xx sending his mistress a letter saying blahblah, in order to listen to/understand/experience music, because those are philosophically out of the realm of music experience. Like the subtitles, those background stories are often for those who don’t hear very well.

    The problem of the ‘new music’? There is so little music in ‘new music’, at least from the pieces I have heard in concerts.

    Comment by Thorsten — July 1, 2013 at 2:17 pm

  10. “The problem of the ‘new music’? There is so little music in ‘new music’, at least from the pieces I have heard in concerts.” — Thorsten

    While that is certainly not true of all “new music” I’ve heard, you’ve metaphorically hit the figurative nail on the proverbial head with respect to a fair amount of it.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — July 1, 2013 at 9:31 pm

  11. This review from 3+ years ago nicely touches on many of the issues, seems to me:

    http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/musical/2009/10/19/091019crmu_music_ross?currentPage=all

    Comment by David Moran — July 6, 2013 at 1:33 am

  12. What is metaphorical, figurative, or proverbial in “There is so little music in ‘new music'” ? It seems like a straightforward, unmediated assertion to me. Now if I were to say that a denial that there is any music in ‘new music’ is deaf, dumb, and blind, that would be both metaphorical and figurative, and I’m sure could be made proverbial with a little work.

    The Ross article is excellent, but I’d be interested in what he has to say three years later. Nelsons is a bit more established than Gilbert was, but it’s still a choice to go with an energetic, democratically-minded young conductor on the rise, rather than a magisterial authoritarian. As such it’s gamble, and I’m not sure how the Gilbert gamble is working out.

    Comment by SamW — July 6, 2013 at 12:00 pm

  13. SamW, since you generally seem to know things, can you explain

    >> not sure how the Gilbert gamble is working out.

    The recent reviews in the NYTimes and NYorker of the conclusion of Gilbert season 4 are all positive, to put it mildly. Of course there are other reviewers, whom I don’t read so often. Regardless, it sounds as though you’re implying something here. If so, what?

    Comment by David Moran — July 6, 2013 at 2:19 pm

  14. You’ve read more reviews than I have. I remember enthusiasm when he was hired, and had the impression that enthusiasm had waned, but I don’t have anything to back that up. I’m glad to hear he’s doing well. I’m all for taking the gamble, in both his case and Nelsons’, but just think it should be recognized as such.

    Comment by SamW — July 6, 2013 at 4:31 pm

  15. Mr/Ms Thorsten, if you were at the event, you would have known that the question of foreknowledge of musical compositions came from a man not the slightest interested in the sort of gossip to which you refer, but instead raised trepidations about lack of technical or historical background. And Mr. Nelsons’s response was directed at ameliorating such feelings of intimidation; in fact, his response was totally in keeping with the very quality of his personality noted already by many people: a complete “lack of pretension,” as Joel Cohen noted. Nor does Nelsons come across as a “magisterial authority,” as SamW noted. I am sure the BSO taped the event, if you wish to check it out. Perhaps in any event you are all too aware of those radio stations that do supply such gossip?

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — July 6, 2013 at 10:11 pm

  16. “What is metaphorical, figurative, or proverbial in “There is so little music in ‘new music’” ?” You talkin’ to me? If so, I never said that there was. They were in the phrase “hit the nail on the head.” Hope this clears it up.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — July 7, 2013 at 3:41 pm

  17. Ah, so the figurative language was yours and not his. I should have noticed that; it was right before my eyes, to speak figuratively (that usage does not quite rise to the dignity of a metaphor.)

    Comment by SamW — July 7, 2013 at 7:46 pm

  18. The success of the Gilbert hire in terms of audience engagement and musical success has relatively little to do with youth. It has to do with an approach to programming that is catholic, intellectually curious, and interesting, not just trotting out warhorses. New music is taken seriously and integrated into programs. An excellent example: Messaien, Mozart, a new work by Murail, and Beethoven 2. What a fabulous program both musically and marketing-wise – creating dialogue and unexpected connections across centuries and traditions, and bringing in traditional subscribers and a younger audience that wants more than standards.

    I fear that Nelsons is just a young version of the same old problem. We haven’t heard anything from him about actual approaches to programming. Every time he’s asked to talk about what he wants to put on, it’s vague niceties, a list of composers, a generic statement about “germanic tradition”. His most recent programming innovation in Birmingham was a Beethoven cycle. I love Beethoven, but that’s hardly innovative programming. I worry.

    Comment by b m — July 10, 2013 at 11:55 am

  19. We shall see about that. Much of the programming will be drawn up with Tony Fogg, who’s seen a few things come and go.

    Comment by Camilli — July 10, 2013 at 10:04 pm

  20. Still another interesting valentine to Gilbert, a mini-report informatively covering his more-recent-music ideas and successes. Lots of ideas and the right spirit here:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/16/arts/music/alan-gilbert-shapes-a-legacy-of-change-at-the-philharmonic.html

    Nelsons is over a decade younger.

    Comment by David Moran — July 15, 2013 at 10:12 pm

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