A distinct buzz was emanating from Symphony Hall Thursday when this writer joined counterparts from two other electronic journals in a one-hour interview with new Music Director Andris Nelsons and Managing Director Mark Volpe. PBS was there doing special lighting and setting up camera positions for what isn’t even going to be opening night, although it may be the beginning of an epoch. Time will tell. As readers must already know, the excitement is about a first among firsts. Andris Nelsons, who has already had made noted BSO first appearances as guest conductor, as Tanglewood conductor, as Music Director Designate at Tanglewood and as Music Director Designate at Symphony Hall, is now (in a one-night-only special event with two stellar singers) making his regular season debut as music director in a season in which he will conduct 10 sets of concerts.
Much has been said of the Maestro’s youth, and indeed at 35 he is the second-youngest conductor to begin his tenure as BSO music director. The full-bearded George Henschel began as the orchestra’s first leader at age 31, while Seiji Ozawa, even with beads and turtleneck, began as a comparatively ancient 37-year-old. Nelsons’s enthusiasm is indeed youthful and exuberant—he seems astonished at his good fortune—and both press and management hope that this will translate into younger audiences.
Tonight’s operatic gala with lustrous soprano Kristine Opolais (the wife of Andris Nelsons) and the heroic tenor Jonas Kaufman promises to be a memorable chapter in the BSO’s storied history. A rather lengthy interview begins below the break.
LE: Everyone wants to know specifics about of your repertoire plans, but you’re not about to tell us exactly what you’ll be playing in years 2-5, so I have a more general question about the process you go through and to what extent is this marketing-driven, to what extent are you programming music you think people will want to come and hear and to what extent are you programming music that you want to play—and how are you going to figure out what people want to hear, how will you get to know what Bostonians want to hear?
AN: It is a combination of things of course. For me it’s very important to take care of several things. One is the great tradition of the orchestra—of Koussevitzky and Munch and all the great conductors. The existing repertoire has always been special to us, but the commissions are too. That’s one thing. Then of course it is important to take care of the audience from different aspects. First of course is expectation of a great quality of musicmaking, but taking care of the variety of repertoire is also important. The expectation is to take care of the great geniuses of the past, the composers living now and the composers who will compose in the future through commissions. I think all aspects are important and as well my own subjective direction of what I think is closer to my personality, what I can express and gives the best of me to the orchestra and the audience.
LE: Does the music director have a say in what the guest conductors are doing? Or is that more between management and them?
MV: The music director gets first call on any repertoire he wants. But I think it’s more collaborative. It’s worked out through a committee of Andris, me, Tony Fogg, our artistic administrator, and then Andris has people he works with. There are three or four people in the meeting and we mostly focus on Andris because that provides a base; then we have a relationship with Charles Dutoit and Christoph Dohnanyi. Then you have Haitink, who is emeritus, and you’ve (AN) been very generous to Haitink. There are rules and there are exceptions. Haitink can do what he wants to do and we’ve been supportive of that.
AN: I think this is a combination. We are meeting and discussing and talking and for me as a music director of course it’s very important that the guest conductors who come, like all the great maestros Mark has mentioned, that they also should feel comfortable and confident. So they are not forced to conduct anything. It is an artistic process, always with a discussion, whether it’s Maestro Haitink or anyone else
LE: So you always want them to play to their strengths, but are you also going to say look, Maestro, we’ve had this piece played a hundred times.
MV: Of course, if the piece has been performed three years in a row …. They’re intelligent folks, they know better. If Haitink or Dohnanyi talks to us, we share information and again Andris is incredibly generous in many respects. You know, if it’s a younger conductor who probably doesn’t have quite the experience, we are a little bit more forceful and pushing ideas. Although we sort of have a rule here that we don’t ask conductors for something that they don’t want to do. That’s a recipe for a bad result.
AN: And when the conductor’s making a debut, we all want it to be amazing and successful, so whatever he’s comfortable with. At the same time, as a professional musician you have to enlarge your repertoire and you’re responsible for sharing this repertoire of classical music, which is huge. So to enlarge that and be flexible and to be able to conduct from Vienna Classical or Baroque to contemporary music. You can’t say oh, I love this composer but only this composer.
MV: There’s another factor that weighs in since we are going to be frankly touring more frequently, as Andris wants. We’re going to be playing London, Paris, Berlin, Salzburg, Milan at the end of Tanglewood. On a big festival tour you have to work with your hosts. In the Lucerne festival, for instance, they have Concertgebouw, Berlin, Vienna every year. You don’t want all three or four orchestras playing the same Brahms symphony, so it’s not like you get to decide exactly what you want to do. There are a lot of factors and equations and you shape it and ultimately Andris has the final say. But if you want to go to Salzburg festival and you recommend a piece and they say no, we’ve just had it, you find another piece.
MM: I’ve seen in another interview you mentioned how much you love Richard Strauss and I see we’re going to have quite a bit of him this coming year, which is great, and also Bruckner and Shostakovich, the Tenth. That’s a lot to look forward to.
AN: From my own background, the Germanic and Slavonic line will be obviously be present, and the French, though I’m not conducting any French repertoire this season; but it will be present in the future. And also we’ll continue with our contemporary Boston composers.
Along these lines, it’s very interesting that Bruckner and Shostakovich have not been performed much by BSO music directors. In fact Maestro Levine didn’t do any Bruckner or Shostakovich. I was trying to think what I could perform which has not also been done by the previous music directors. Bruckner and Shostakovich are examples that will continue. And of course Strauss is another great genius composer whom I want to play, and not only the pieces which are most famous, but in the future it would be great to do less-known works of his.
LE: But there’s rarely been a theme for an entire season. It always has been miscellaneous and broad.
MV: Within the seasons we’ve had a few concentrations occasionally; we’ll do a Beethoven piano concerto cycle or we had that Beethoven-Schoenberg initiative with James Levine. I’m not saying we’re encyclopedic because we don’t do a lot of Baroque or really early music, but I think we have a traditional subscription format. One of the traps when we say “Boston audience” is that it’s not monolithic. There are so many different factions that bring so many different experiences and different degrees of sophistication. And the other reality is that 30 or 40 years ago, people would subscribe to 24 concerts; in today’s world it’s five or six. So part of what you have to do when creating a season it put the audience comes first. Andris has to put all this together while also keeping the orchestra stimulated. If you played a Mahler symphony every week for nine consecutive weeks, the orchestra is going to be in revolt, especially the brass players. We’re also talking about concert opera occasionally, maybe once or twice a year
MM: Would you mind getting into specifics? Beyond this season, what specific pieces would you want to bring?
MV: I don’t think we want to name any yet. We’ll do a season announcement.
AN: Although it’s no secret that Bruckner has nine symphonies, so probably one of these and probably one of Shostakovich’s 15. You have nine plus 15 guesses.
LE: I asked our readers to put in some questions. One asked about some obscure composers. Should we always expect to have masterworks? Can we also have some interesting mediocrities like Cherubini or Onslow? How many times have you said to a conductor that no one will come if you book such and such?
MV: If Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman are on the same program …. I don’t want to be that glib, but you have a little more latitude of what you can program because you don’t have to worry about the box office. Obviously, the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood aside, you know you have 10,000 seats to sell in the subscription run; you have to be careful. You know obviously first and foremost that we are a mission-drive orchestra under Andris Nelsons, but we’re also a business. We have 10,000 seats to sell, you have to have enough substance in terms of the audience perspective that they’ll listen to something they might not know. So it’s always a balance of repertoire that people want to hear and then new artists and new pieces.
MM: You have a lot of experience in the pit. Do you see some concert performances of operas here as a complement to your conducting in the opera house, or a different kind of activity?
AN: I love opera, I love symphonic music. Concert opera is very exciting for the audience to hear; you know the variety including the opera and it’s also very professionally and musically exciting for a symphony orchestra to play an opera which develops another direction of qualities, such as flexibility of listening. For me, opera, will always be important.
MM: It’s a different experience for the audience.
AN: It’s a different experience for the audience and also for the orchestra.
LE: Levine got the Met Orchestra out of the pit and gave very well-received concerts
AN: Exactly. I think for an opera orchestra to play symphonic music on the stage develops and extends their range the same as when a symphony orchestra plays opera. You see from a different perspective. I somehow try to look at the opera from the symphonic side so the importance of the colors of the orchestra and not to be only one layer. It is always a mixture of things. And also in symphonic music, from conducting opera, I personally see it more as a drama. When you’re conducting a Mahler symphony or a Strauss or actually even a Haydn symphony, I somehow like to sing more dramatically from the opera perspective; a little fantasy world opens. For me a there’s a different perspective as well. It’s the same I think for the orchestra and for the audiences as well. Last year Salome was so exciting for us to do with orchestra.
LE: Is concert opera cruel to singers who are used to having the orchestra in the pit? I think you as a singer are sympathetic, and you more than any conductors I have heard can get pianissimos out of an orchestra to avoid covering your singers. In a recent concert production of Die tote Stadt, the singers were really turning purple trying to be heard. But I think you as a singer are generous enough not to want to cover other singers.
AN: Thank you. It’s very interesting because when you look in the score of a Richard Strauss or any composer there’s always fortissimo or three fortes and of course if you literally do what is written in the opera, even with an orchestra in the pit, you cannot make a balance. And even in concert opera orchestras should play from the balance point so it’s not covering. And even there you have to take care that the balance works well, and that’s a bigger challenge in the concert hall. Concertante balancing is the biggest challenge, but that’s where it’s also very exciting, because you develop the flexibility and the sensitivity of musicmaking and the listening that are both so important in any music, whether it’s opera or symphony. Balance also is also important in life, in the moments when you have to listen to one person, then you have to give the chance for another one, you have to shut up and just listen. And sometimes it’s the same in music, just to have this. And it’s very exciting, it’s like a kind of architecture. You know at this moment this part is important and then that moment that. It’s very exciting to make the balance and to get the flexibility and sensitivity to work. And the opera really develops that very much.
LE: Because you’re a singer, does that make you more sensitive?
AN: Well, certainly being married to a singer….
LE: So that means you’re going to cover the tenor on Saturday night.
AN: For me as a singer, a bad singer, but a person who studied and sang, I have a feeling that the vocal line and the breathing is very important and therefore breathing has to do with the biological clock of the body. It’s never mechanical. It’s not a metronomical thing. It varies day to day. You have to be flexible to feel and support that, as a singer. And also there’s an agitation: you need to follow that; and a little relaxation.
MV: It’s more elastic.
AN: It’s elastic. And for me to be able to study and also play trumpet, which was my first profession, I understood that it has so much to do with the biological clock rather than the mechanical metronome. And I think the same is also in symphonic music. The heart, the pulse is constant.
MV: It better be.
AN: But it is not mechanical, and I think music is the same. Even if there is a metronome mark from the composers. I don’t think that any composer would mean it in a mathematical sense unless you know it is a Stravinsky piece or any other music that is written and the mechanic moments are very important.
LE: So you want the instrumentalists to have the same sense that the singers have.
AN: Yes, in a certain way, and sometimes the singers…
MV: Need to be more rhythmic? [laughter] Sorry, I didn’t say that.
AN: But they need to be more organized in the moments where maybe it’s necessary. There are moments where you are free, and there are moments where you have to be organized in your rhythm.
MM: Well, that must be a huge advantage to have had this experience as a singer and an instrumentalist sitting in the orchestra if you’re conducting.
AN: I’m certainly very grateful to those opportunities in life. I was in the orchestra and played in the orchestra and I could sing and I could experience it from that side.
MM: Are you still singing?
AN: No, it’s been a long time. and I haven’t practiced for a long long time. But when I hear a good singer. I think I could sing. When you hear great singers you think oh. it’s so easy, and then you open your mouth, it’s not so easy.
LE: But you’re by far the best singer among BSO conductors since George Henschel. [laughter] And he exists in recordings, he was an amazing baritone. Can I ask one more singing question? And that is from the members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, who feel left out this year. They’re doing less this year than any year they can remember and are surprised that a vocalist conductor isn’t giving them more to do. Is that just an artifact of this transitional year?
MV: Yeah, this is a very light year; we’re thinking that the following year they’ll be much happier. I think it’s more of an anomaly, not a statement. Tuesday night we had obviously a fundraiser but we very much wanted the chorus involved in that and a good number of them came and did some wonderful singing. The chorus is integral and one of our key constituencies and this year, because of certain things…. You know I think next year we’re hoping to take them to New York again. Carnegie, the program just got set, and that’s almost half of the season…. And then we have the European tour and we’ll be starting to prepare that and there’s no chorus involved there. So those programs got organized without the possibility of a chorus because they’re going to Carnegie and elsewhere. But I think next year we’re going to bring them back to New York.
AK: What has surprised you most about working with the BSO?
AN: They’re an incredibly flexible orchestra; from the first moment I felt it from the orchestra, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra has always been known for its great sound. In my experience as a musician in listening to recordings of Munch, it’s always in the sound.
Besides the amazing orchestra, of course the concert hall is I think the best in the United States and one of the best in the world. I mean people say Musikverein in Vienna and Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and Symphony Hall in Boston, these are really the most exciting halls. It’s got great sound quality and history as well, so this is of course a part of a bonus, which creates a great sound, but I think also the sound is never forced, it’s never aggressive, even though there are moments when, for example, you play a Shostakovich symphony and you have to have sometimes the force and of course they have that too, but again it’s a singing cantabile marcato, as I sometimes say.
LE: In terms of the flexibility of rhythm, do you think the orchestra is actually stylistically flexible and can play in different styles for you and other conductors? Do you ask them to do things in particular repertoire that they might not have done?
AN: It’s the beginning of my journey with the orchestra. Whenever I have worked with the orchestra, my subjective view to the style: I have been lucky that they have always been so supportive of it. For example we did Beethoven 5 this summer and each time I do Beethoven 5 anywhere it’s different. But we did it in a certain direction and style, and then I heard a great rehearsal with my colleague Ed Gardner and he did Beethoven 7 and they played differently, the way he approached it, so it sounded different.
LE: Can you describe the difference?
AN: I think his approach was more authentic with maybe less vibrato, maybe faster tempo. And the orchestra was following, they really did it.
MM: What struck me was a long time ago as a student when I would see the BSO, they always sounded like the BSO no matter who was conducting it. And more recently the orchestra will take on whatever sound the conductor cultivates. And it’s amazing how they can do that at Tanglewood, for instance.
MV: It’s a generational shift, the old BSO, and I grew up with those recordings, and my father’s colleagues were in the orchestra. It was the BSO and they were going to play and these are the parts and we have had three concertmasters in 100 years, so the bowings are absolutely intact, so it’s going to be that way. And now a generational shift, through attrition, as people retired and people were hired. It’s much more flexible and much more inclined just the way we set up the orchestra. There are orchestras, I don’t want to mention names, in America that, you know, it has to be this way and the conductor is given the block, here and they’ll play violins together, violins split, cellos on the outside, cellos on the inside, basses left, basses right. These guys, I don’t know about 40 years ago, but right now, it’s whatever the conductor wants.
MM: I really enjoy that, hearing the orchestra in different conditions.
MV: Jimmy split the fiddles, and was very respectful of Haitink. Haitink got them together.
LE: Are risers ever coming back?
MV: We’ll look at it. We use risers sometimes and sometimes not, you know; Haitink wanted the orchestra flat. Jimmy wanted the orchestra flat. We still have them. They’re somewhere down there. You walk around in the basement you’ll probably run into risers somewhere.
AK: What about recordings? You have plans to record, obviously, so is there anything in the works?
MV: I think it’s very important. Still the old-fashioned way with a CD, and also with the DVD and also in the modern technology with downloads, so I think this is all our plans and our directions to go. You’ll be among the first to hear this. I think our approach to media will be to have a relationship with the old-guard media companies where we’ll possibly do a composer cycle or something. I haven’t consummated the deal so I can’t tell you specifically but we’re also very proud of what we’ve done with our own label, so I think we’re going to continue that and also continue the discussion with the traditional labels. Obviously we’ll be very careful repertoire-wise so that we’re not competing with the media companies. But then there are these new media companies. It’s no longer just Deutsche Grammophon, Decca, EMI, Sony. You talk to the investors and hear that the media companies are named Apple, Amazon, Google. There’s an opportunity there and I think it’s going to be a multifaceted strategy and we’re going to be obviously working with a major media company. Working with our own label and working with new media and with the advantages we do have. Believe me, the navigation isn’t ideal because there’s so much content, but I was sharing earlier that we have a web platform that has 7.5 million households accessing it. That media center alone gets a lot of attention and we did this little, I don’t want to call it reality TV, but we did the Tanglewood Tales, taking four or five of them and followed through. We’re well over 300,000 views already. Now, it’s free, it’s not paid content, but I think there is room [for that]. Our audience still buys CDs. You can’t find a Tower or a Virgin in Boston or even New York anymore. But on our store and the store at Tanglewood we sell thousands of CDs.
LE: And do you continue to duplicate the WCRB web stream of the live broadcasts this year.
MV: For a year they will be up except for some exceptions, like a Porgy and Bess, which you don’t get it for a whole year, but we’re going to continue that arrangement, so that will be available.
LE: Will WCRB will produce it and both websites will stream it?
MV: Yeah, we’ll stream it so that will continue for the foreseeable future, but in terms of recordings that get reviewed, next time Andris is here we’ll have a recording option or two to make and that’ll be paired with a touring strategy. Our first consideration is always the audience in Boston, but we want to disseminate our musical content electronically throughout the world and media is obviously the plea, and then we also physically want to take the orchestra and put them around.
LE: What about Providence and Worcester and Portland, where you used to have concerts?
MV: That’s a little tricky, because the local orchestras don’t necessarily want us back in their markets. If you look at the history, the Milwaukee Symphony was nothing when the Chicago Symphony was visiting there 12, 14 times a year, and likewise in Baltimore; but there’s still demand enough for us in Boston. If we go to Providence, something has to give here. And because we are going to be touring, you know we’re in Europe for seven days, we’re going to Carnegie for blocks of time, so it’s kind of a zero-sum game. With Pops it’s a little different because we have the second orchestra, so we can tour with the Esplanade Pops and not lose services here.
LE: Right, but you could eliminate Tuesdays in Boston and say Tuesdays will be Providence, Worcester, and Portland; there is an untapped audience.
MV – I think the Rhode Island Philharmonic would not be happy with that, among others. There are diplomatic dimensions to that, but certainly in Hartford, you forgot Hartford.
LE: Right, and Sanders.
MV: And Sanders as well.
LE: Though Sanders is not really going to be a different audience.
MV: Not since they built bridges across the river. GBH had its first studio in Symphony Hall. You know orchestra history; we created the pops idiom and the summer festival. Mediawise we were always among the first, and now we’re exploring new media and continuing through conventional and traditional media too.
LE: And bringing chamber music to the underserved.
MV: That’s gone nicely. I’m shocked, I go to two or three a year and there are real crowds. We do about 23 chamber concerts in addition to the Chamber Players and we take about 8 or 10 of them to underserved populations; we go to Roxbury, or Dorchester, or Mattapan, or Chinatown. And we’re doing more and more. We have local indigenous groups come and play, then we play, and we have a reception. We don’t just say Let us play you the great Brahms. We’re kind of doing it in a more intelligent way.
AK: Which of the conductors of the older generation were particularly important to you? Even those you just know from recordings.
MV: Virtually every composer is from the older generation. [laughter]
AN: All of them. I have always been fond of buying recordings from a very early age, all those historical recordings of Toscanini in thick boxes. Of course Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Bernstein, Kleiber and Karajan I would say influenced my taste and my understanding about quality of music or of sounds. But of course, Munch and all of these Boston conductors as well, the flexibility he got, the spontaneity….
MV: Of course he never rehearsed; it was always spontaneous. [laughter]
AN: Of course my being from Leningrad it was Mariss Jansons being my biggest teacher. Of course he was a great influence on me as a musician. I have learned from recordings of the old generation, the first conductors who have recordings, like Richard Strauss himself, it’s so interesting to hear. But it’s also learning from living conductors. Listening to the rehearsals, recordings, and concerts of them, it’s very important for me as a source of learning. And also my younger colleagues, Sir Simon Rattle and Thielemann; that generation and also colleagues my age. I’m listening to recordings and it’s so interesting to analyze them. The process of learning from other colleagues is huge.
LE: You must have learned there’s no right way and wrong way.
AN: Of course there is no right way or wrong way. Listen to Beethoven symphonies under Copland or Toscanini, and it’s day and night in terms of interpretation; but it’s also amazing.
LE: Did you have listen to the Mengelberg recording of the St. Matthew Passion?
AN: Yes, of course. That is very interesting.
LE: Can you bring us something like that some day? Can you bring us back some Bach in an orchestral form?
MV: Haitink did his first and only St. Matthew Passion with us. Seiji did it years ago….
LE : But that was a disaster.
MV: But we’ve not done much Bach. We did some Vivaldi at Tanglewood, like a multi-instrument concerti.
MM: In another interview you said that perhaps Bach and Handel and Baroque composers should be left to specialists.
AN: I have as a singer and a trumpet player played a lot of Baroque and Renaissance music. And that was my concentration when I was very, very young. Then when I went and started conducting myself and I thought, in my experience it was always a chamber music feeling, more or less without a conductor, which we did. And then of course there was a big time of great interpreters like John Elliot Gardiner, or Nikolaus Harnoncourt. I thought this was so interesting and so exciting, what they’re doing, and then I thought well, I should stay away because they are so great and they are so informed and knowledgeable, as well as having musical intuition. And then I thought I shouldn’t conduct because it should be up to these great specialists to perform that music. Just a few months ago I really wanted to start conducting Bach. Maybe because I think he’s a father figure of every composer ever since his time. In Bach’s music there is everything. All contemporary music is already there. All the music that has ever been written. He’s probably the most genius composer ever, and I think also the approaches to his music can be very different.
What he brings to the music, the emotionality, the architecture, goes beyond the style and beyond the style of the orchestra. Very recently I thought why not play it with a relatively big orchestra again? I mean not necessarily a period direction.
But I don’t know where the courage to start thinking about conducting Bach comes from. Maybe it’s some nostalgia because I used to sing that. It’s amazing when you listen to Renaissance music, Gesualdo, Monteverdi, also Bach.
MV: It’s so interesting, every few years, we’ll bring in a Suzuki and it’s a little bit of a struggle. Half the orchestra has Baroque bows and the other half is saying that’s not what we do.
LE: But it sounds like you wouldn’t strive for the early-music approach. You would do a richer fuller orchestra sound.
AN: I want to do the St. Matthew Passion in an unperiodic style, just to express the musical emotional message that the music brings.
LE: I give you applause for that; there’s still too much early music that has no emotion. And to put the emotion back…
AN: Stokowski, of course, I mean it’s….
MV: When you hear him play those Bach suites, I mean oh, my God.
AN: I’m a great fan of a historically informed performance but you can’t have only that when you play earlier music with modern instruments in the context of a major orchestra like the BSO. You really have to connect with what happened afterward and that’s the only way a modern orchestra can get it.
MV: And the other thing is this is one of the greatest orchestras, and I’m so privileged to be associated with them, and that being said, if you wanted to ask them to do … you know if we brought this ensemble from San Francisco up to Tanglewood to do Handel opera. They’re not built that way. They’re good enough musicians if you give them six months…. But for one week and you bring this guy in and he wants to transform the orchestra, it’s just a recipe…. The hybrid approach you were talking about has some real possibilities. But when you try to slam down authentic performance practice to an orchestra that has not been trained that way is sometimes….
LE: But it’s also irrelevant if you have nothing of your own to add to it.
MV: Yeah, and we’re not going to do it as well as what they do in London or in Amsterdam or Handel and Haydn….
LE: Well you would do it differently.
AN: I’m so respectful and admiring of these masters like Gardiner or all these. So I used to think I couldn’t touch it.
LE: Well, they’re doing all right for their moments, but 50 years from now that approach may be viewed differently, just as it was 50 or 100 years ago.
AN: I don’t know, but listening to old international conductors doing Bach, it’s so interesting whether it’s Stokowski or Haitink.
MV: Haitink after 40 years conducting the Boston Symphony came to Tony and me and said, I’ve never done a St. Matthew Passion, and his native Amsterdam is one of the centers for early music. So he’s sitting there and he had the same feeling you did, that’s what they do, I can’t…. Yet he wanted to do it.
We’re going to do anything, obviously subject now to your approval, but anything Bernard wants to do. So it’s very interesting. I don’t think he’s going to become a Bach specialist.
LE – Lee Eiseman (publisher Boston Musical Intelligencer)
AN – Andris Nelsons
MV- Mark Volpe
MM – Michael Miller (publisher of Berkshire Review and New York Arts)
AK – Aaron Keebaugh (Boston Classical Review)