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.
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.