IN: Reviews

Following His Every Move


The gala conducted by Andris Nelsons last Saturday was rich in opera. On Wednesday, the new music director turned to conventional orchestra repertoire. There was no such singing in last night’s program, but there was a fair amount of riveting ballet, and it was not limited to Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin.

Andris Nelsons is a conductor of endlessly fascinating moves. He seems to use all independent dimensions of movement: while the baton conveys extremely precise beat, the fingers of his left hand might provide directions to wood winds, while position and motion of his body may simultaneously be giving very explicit phrasing instructions. It was spellbinding to watch in the Allegro of Beethoven Eight’s: I can’t recall ever seeing and hearing an orchestra that was micromanaged to the same extent. It seemed to operate as a perfect automaton reflecting every nuance of the conductor’s body movement. The symphony appeared in front of our eyes as a ballet suite in its own right.

This would look great on video, but it looked even better live and was not to be missed. Nelsons doesn’t always seem to conduct with this degree of micromanagement. As a listener swept away by Nelsons interpretation of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances last year, I certainly didn’t have the same impression of a total control when watching him conduct from the Concertgebouw podium seats. It may be that Rachmaninoff did not conjure this musical automaton, while Beethoven 8th with its elements of mechanical humor begged for it.

The symphony sounded fresh and energizing. In the Allegro, somewhat angular and mechanical movements of the conductor translated into lovely dynamic contrasts and elegant rhythmic lines. The menuetto was appropriately comical, while the horns and the clarinet in the Trio provided moments of the sublime with Martha Babcock’s cello adding charming spontaneity. The Finale was fun and driven without being rushed. Pure joy: the audience responded with laughter mixed with applause in equal measures.

Bartok’s Mandarin Suite is an orchestral tour-de-force to begin with, but as played by a great orchestra in the throes of a honeymoon with its new music director, it just carried the audience away. From mysterious to genuinely menacing, this was less a sequence of scenes than one uninterrupted and somewhat disturbing vision, as if filmed in a single cut.

Andris Nelsons greets BSO double bass Lawrence Wolfe (Winslow-Townson photo)

As far as this listener is concerned, nothing tests a conductor’s collaboration with the orchestra as much as a Tchaikovsky Symphony. On the surface, it is an easy sell. The master of the 1812 Overture occupies a special place in the hearts of BSO audience—or at least in the hearts of the publishing staff who insist on always calling him Pyotr Ilyitch as if to prove that they are so ready to embrace his Russianness that they resort to a rather un-American form of addressing him by his patronymic.

Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique does call for some cross-cultural embracing. Generally, I have a hard time understanding how perfectly rational people can put up with it. The anguish that I can relate to in the Piano Trio or First String Quartet, becomes too much of a Dostoevsky style scandal when blown out of proportion in the much more public space of a Symphony.

At least I was prepared for some of its emotional demands: when listening to a heartbreakingly beautiful clarinet solo in the first movement played by William Hudgins, I knew that something nasty would follow. But many others in the audience must have been quite shocked when the fortissimo attack whacked them on the head. (A Chinese student in front of me started visibly).

After the lovely stumbling Waltz of the second movement, the bombastic march, a precursor to great many expressions of proletarian enthusiasm of the following century, and just as packed with forced optimism, brought the audience to the Lamentoso finale just in the shape that the composer would have wanted: overstimulated, slightly disturbed and ripe to undergo one of the most blatant heart-on-the-sleeve experiences in the repertoire.  Usually such pressure doesn’t lead to a pure musical experience.

But in this case it just worked; it was intense, free of schmaltz, and moving. Chalk it up to the remarkable concentration by Nelsons in the Adagio and to the orchestra that follows his every intent.

Recently, while reviewing the latest “Anna Karenina” movie, the light travesty of Tolstoy’s novel starring Keira Knightley, Dmitry Bykov, one of the most gifted literary figures of modern Russia, came to a sad conclusion that such mockery of a great novel can only be explained one way. The western society just had enough of the Russian mystery wrapped in enigma. May be so, but the October 1st experience at BSO suggests that the music of the same paradigm is exempt, and there can be true rewards in it. Du holde Kunst!

Victor Khatutsky is a software developer who reviewed music as a US-based freelancer for the Kommersant Daily of Moscow. He has been known for occasionally traveling long distances to catch his favorite performers.


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

  1. After the Beethoven on Thursday evening, the man next to me characterized Maestro Nelsons’ podium antics as “over the top,” which stuck me as well put. There were wild gesticulations and swayings, crouching and leaping, and zapping with the baton. Perhaps most innovative, however, was when he lounged against the podium railing and gazed at the lower string sections. All in all, it was a truly bizarre performance by the maestro. But the orchestra played the music very well, and if they need that sort of a performance by the conductor to play the piece (which I consider superior only to the cellar-dwelling 4th in Beethoven’s symphonic output) so well, then I suppose it’s worth it. One moment was especially noteworthy for me: the cello solo in the trio of the third movement. I had never noticed it before. Martha Babcock did not overwhelm the brass, but she was at just the right volume to be audible when I saw she was playing what seemed to be a bravura accompaniment. Brava.

    With the Bartók, the histrionics were more subdued, perhaps, as the man next to me suggested, because Maestro Nelsons was somewhat less familiar with the score and couldn’t allow himself to be “sent” by the music quite so much.

    Again, with the Tchaikovsky, Maestro Nelsons behaved more like a normal conductor at the demonstrative end of the spectrum. The playing he evoked from the orchestra was excellent. there were pianissimi that were barely audible and thundering fortissimi. There was clarity. There was music.

    Both the Beethoven and the Tchaikovsky are familiar pieces, and both were fresh, not because the performances seemed idiosyncratic, but because they were so alive. If I never hear the Bartók again it will be soon enough, but that’s Bartók, not the BSO’s. All in all, it was a great performance by the BSO under Maestro Nelsons’ sometimes overly demonstrative conducting, and, again, if they need the histrionics to play that well, I guess it’s worth it.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — October 3, 2014 at 2:26 am

  2. An enjoyable concert for sure. The Tchaikovsky was for me the highlight, a strong performance that gained in strength as it advanced, with the best of it coming in the finale. While there were certainly outstanding visceral thrills in the first movement, to these ears it felt a little bit too pulled apart. The second and third movements were excellent.

    As for the Beethoven, it seemed to me to be Beethoven’s 8th as filtered through Brahms. I didn’t find it to be a “joyous” or “buoyant” reading of the work, but one rather weighted down in a way that took the life out of it. It’s a slight piece of music, but last night’s performance to my ears did not make a strong case for the interpretation.

    Having now heard Nelsons in three concerts, there are some commonalities I’ve observed which will be interesting to see play out in time:

    1) Nelsons has a real point of view in his interpretations. You may like it, or you may not, but you can’t deny that he’s trying to say something. I think this is (so far) a plus. While I’ve never heard Alan Gilbert, if I’m to trust the reviews, Nelsons is the anti-Gilbert. And the anti-Welser-Most, who treads so lightly as to almost be invisible within the music.

    2) Nelsons LOVES big sound (where appropriate). YAY!! Has anyone noticed how much more prominent the basses are in just about everything getting played? (Their presence transformed Brahms’ 3rd last season.) It’s wonderful…I’ve never understood for years why the basses at times could barely be heard. Witness also last night Nelsons’ giving the percussion and brass such prominence in a positive, tasteful, and very impactful way.

    3) Nelsons can be at risk of micromanaging the music. He can have a tendency to over-interpret and over-manage, sometimes to the death of the music. The worst example I’ve heard thus far is Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, which was so micromanaged and pulled apart that it never gelled. The first movement of Tchaikovsky’s 6th last night came perilously close.


    Comment by Mogulmeister — October 3, 2014 at 7:42 am

  3. “The bombastic march, a precursor to great many expressions of proletarian enthusiasm of the following century”:NICE. I will listen for it at tonight’s concert. You remind me that Tocqueville predicted that Russia and America would emerge as the two “great proletarian” nations (Democracy,Vol.I, conclusion). You also imply that Shostakovich might have heard it if he examined T.’s score.

    Comment by Ashley — October 4, 2014 at 8:22 am

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