IN: Reviews

Nelsons’ Debut Rocks Symphony Hall


Expectation hung over Symphony Hall last night as the crowd gathered for Wagner, Mozart, and Brahms. Though the program looked interesting, the energetic buzz was entirely about the man with the baton: this was Andris Nelsons’ subscription debut as the 15th Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The evening’s performances and the audience’s ecstatic reactions left little doubt that Nelsons’ appointment was much needed and much enjoyed.

Andris Nelson rocks (Marco Borggreve photo)
Andris Nelson rocks (Marco Borggreve photo)

The first performance of the evening, to judge by the applause, was Nelsons’ walking onto the stage in the first place. After the conductor’s accident in July delayed his debut as music director, BSO audiences were forced to wait another four months to see their new conductor at work. Nelsons’s inaugural entrance was answered with a long and spontaneous standing ovation, the sort of fervent greeting normally reserved for a very narrow range of celebrity soloists. When the audience finally retook its seats, vacant seats were few and far between.

The musical program began with the Siegfried Idyll, a piece by Richard Wagner that employed just fifty of the BSO players. The reduced numbers in no way impoverished the sound: Nelsons conducted with a brilliant dynamicism that found and explored innumerable subtleties and shadings. (Afterwards, several of the long-time subscription members around me whispered about how they had never heard so much in the Idyll before.) The dynamic swells came like water bubbling to the surface and the audience hung on the movements of Nelsons’ baton.

In many ways, his on-stage mien was a reminder of how exhilarating it can be to watch a vibrant and physically expressive maestro at his craft. Clad in a simple, long black tunic and trousers, he was constantly in motion from the first downbeat to the last, with movements that constantly stirred and shaped the sound and character of the notes. This was a busy performance and an engrossing, not distracting, one. The conductor’s dance may have spiritually recalled something of Seiji Ozawa’s tenure, but it was a visual and artistic mark all of Nelsons’ own. The sterling utterances from the French horns and the rest of the brass and woodwinds were rather overshadowed by the thunderous applause directed the conductor’s way.

After a reset of the stage, just forty players remained for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major. Nelsons approached this piece with a brisk tempo married to a pleasant and playful lightness. Soloist Paul Lewis took a similarly light touch, drawing a sweet sound and timbre from the keys. Michael Steinberg’s program note description of the piece aptly described the overall performance as well: “subtly gentle and winsome”. “Gentle” was far from boring, however, especially with moments like the end of the first movement, when Nelsons practically bounced from one side of the podium to the other, stirring up a sudden forte conclusion as he went.

Lewis drew a somewhat brasher sound from the piano in the Andante movement that followed. In contrast to the delicate arpeggios interwoven with the orchestra in the previous movement, this interpretation pushed back a little against the ethereal sound from the woodwinds. Only a brief but pregnant pause separated this second movement from the gavotte and rondo of the last. Piano concerto though this was, once the rondo began the winds did much to steal the spotlight with their alternate renditions of the song-like secondary theme. Lewis never entirely yielded to this tug, though, and made his own claims to beautiful and varied renditions of the material.

One intermission later, the full-sized orchestra at last appeared for Brahms’s Third Symphony. Nelsons began the work with broad strokes of his baton, drawing a strident sound for the first phrases. Although the aesthetic was different, his full vocabulary of motion was still in play: within a few measures, he alternately crouched, leaned over, rose, darted from side to side, and more. The Andante movement that followed was at times a little louder than expected, but the result was not unappealing – more of hearing the score and understanding the possibilities in interesting new ways.

The third movement, Poco Allegretto, was perhaps more conventional in the sense of being more familiar in its interpretation. Especially beautiful were the swelling waves of sound that Nelsons worked from the orchestra as a theme was passed from instrument to instrument; John Ferrillo’s oboe solo was particularly rich and pleasing. The two pizzicato chords that closed the movement were extra piano, a dramatic foreshadowing of the eruptions of sound that would soon follow in the finale.

As an encapsulation of Nelsons’ conducting, the last movement was a dynamic tour-de-force from one timbre to another. That such a great variety of sounds could be worked and made to sound so natural in sequence with so many notes is a tribute to the conductor’s craft. The audience hung on the louder moments and clung to the softer passages; breaths were held as he played with the colors of the final chords. No sooner had he cut off when the first audience members leapt to their feet, clapping and shouting.

Basil Considine studied music and drama at Boston University and the University of San Diego. A composer-librettist, scholar, and playwright, he was the Artistic Director of the Reduced Spice Opera Company of Brookline from 2006-2012.


6 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. If Thursday night’s concert is any indication, the Andris Nelsons years in Boston are going to be thrilling. I was *so impressed* with the concert overall. I’ve heard Ozawa, Haitink, Levine, and Nelsons conduct Brahms’ 3rd. Nelsons’s performance last night was the best by far. The orchestral playing was truly wonderful at every level,and kudos to the orchestra for such a great performance. Already I can hear something very different from the orchestra under Nelsons. For starters, Nelsons elevated the role of the basses in the orchestra, letting them actually be heard–what a concept! For years I’ve wondered, why do so many conductors minimize the presence of the basses in the overall sound? They are at times nearly inaudiable, and their lack of presence to me has always been a real diminishment. Not last night. They were allowed to play and have presence, and the overall effect anchored the orchestra’s sound and brought out a rich depth that I haven’t heard in this orchestra. Additionally, we actually heard the violas last night–another revelation! The lower strings were given more prominence and due, and boy what an effect that had on the overall sound. And Nelsons clearly loves the sound of brass choirs, and he allowed the brass to tastefully sing. I loved his conception of the symphony, although I thought the 4th movement could have been played more urgently and a bit faster during the 4th movement’s outbursts, which would have made them more impactful. But by any standard, it was a great performance of a masterpiece.

    I did not care for the conception of the Mozart piano concerto, but it was played exceptionally well. I’m not the biggest Mozart fan to start with, but I truly dislike it when Mozart’s music is played in an emotionally constricted manner–which these days is the norm thanks to the period movement, as it was also last night. Perhaps this is the “legacy” of the period instrument movement, and I’m not going to challenge anyone’s scholarship around this. But I find this approach unsatisfying musically. I don’t think Mozart’s music needs to be treated like fine porcelain that easily breaks, and so therefore one should never apply much pressure to it. Yet within a framework I don’t care for, I thought it was a masterful performance. I was so impressed with Paul Lewis’s playing even if I didn’t care for the overall conception of the performance. He struck me as truly inside the music and not just playing notes or performing “another gig,” and I felt like I heard a real musician making real music, which is not the norm when you’re a globe-trotting “superstar” soloist. Nelsons and the orchestra played superbly and were of one mind–it never felt like the orchestra was pulling one way and the soloist another, as it often can. Colin Davis (and Maxim Vengerov) always played Mozart with a very expressive emotional range, and while many might dismiss that approach as “old-fashioned” or “big band,” it always was emotionally satisfying to me in a way that the constricted approach is not. But it’s all personal taste. The Siegfried Idyll was beautifully played, although it felt a bit too pulled-apart and managed by Nelsons, and I times I heard myself thinking, “just play the damn thing!”

    All in all, it was a memorable and truly wonderful concert. Nelsons has wasted no time in impacting the sound of the orchestra, and to my ears, very much for the better. How exciting it’s going for us here in Boston to hear this partnership develop and deepen for many years to come. Congratulations to Andris Nelsons, and the orchestra, for another great concert!

    Comment by Mogulmeister — October 18, 2013 at 3:54 pm

  2. Perhaps I was at a different concert Thursday night, as I found the Mozart full of disappointment. The violins were often sloppy with erratic articulation, and late entrances. The first violins couldn’t see to agree on the proper placement of half-steps. The brass in the Brahms were often sharp, especially as they tried to tune thirds.
    Having said that, I found the pianist enchanting, and flute player consistently exquisite. I wish the BSO would tidy up their act, and work for greater clarity, better intonation, and consistent articulation.

    Comment by BostonBratsche — October 18, 2013 at 10:31 pm

  3. I just wish the conductor and pianist didn’t decide wear rehearsal clothes instead of dressing properly like the other musicians.

    Has Nelsons always leaned on the podium railing for support on occasion during concerts?

    Comment by Joe Whipple — October 19, 2013 at 12:47 am

  4. They could be playing in sweatpants for all I care, so long as they are playing as well as they can.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — October 19, 2013 at 12:34 pm

  5. My impression is that Nelsons is encouraging the BSO to play more like a collection of soloists than the corporate entity that has been more typical up to now. The strengths of this were remarkable tonight, especially in the Brahms. Not only were woodwinds playing with much more varied tone and dynamics, but so were the strings, at least in the first stands.

    Potential weaknesses are that the level of clarity and precision sometimes suffered just a little. Full-voiced Mozart sometimes left a few of the subsidiary voices covered. In the Brahms, there were times when a more unified string sound would have helped. The noodling in the 4th movement coda and in the opening of the 3rd movement, and the tune in first movement that begins with a descending chromatic scale. I suspect that much of this is a function of the orchestra getting used to Nelsons’ new approach and his getting used to the hall’s acoustics as anything else.

    So I guess the question is whether the BSO will morph a bit toward the Berlin Phil’s sound, with hugely flexible and independent sections, or more toward the worst examples of Munch’s BSO, where coarseness and imprecision sometimes are most obvious on recordings.

    I am optimistic, and enjoyed tonight’s concert very much in spite of these few reservations. Even the the first half of the Wagner sounded fantastic on my car radio as I was parking.

    Comment by Camilli — October 19, 2013 at 11:57 pm

  6. As I reflect on the concert last Thursday, I realize that I heard more in the Wagner than I have when listening on the radio. There could be a number of factors at work: the sound may be fuller and the various instrumental parts more distinct; I may be less distracted that when sitting at home, or moving around — to say nothing of driving in my car; maybe, and I hope this is the case, the conductor brought out more of it with his interpretation.

    I can’t go into detail on the Brahms. All I can say is that if I hadn’t already known that I don’t like Brahms, that performance of the 3rd would not have told me so.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — October 20, 2013 at 7:09 pm

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