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.