On the Saturday before Thanksgiving Andris Nelsons wrapped up the first half of his first season as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. His official debut came with the Wagner-heavy inaugural concert on Sept. 27, but his other fall appearances seemed to add up to something of a gala debut of their own, albeit one spread out across a month.
I attended three subscription series performances: the Gubaidulina and Sibelius concert on Nov. 8th, the Rite of Spring program on Nov. 13th, and the sprawling Nov. 22th program that felt like the grand finale to an extended coronation. The ingenuity of the fall programming wasn’t immediately evident from the season calendar, but in retrospect the latent echoes and symmetries that emerged across multiple performances seemed perfectly tuned to introduce the new conductor to the BSO audience.
It’s still too early to say for sure, but if Nelsons works out as well as his early concerts suggest he might, the last curtain call on Nov. 22th might well be remembered as the moment when he truly joined the Boston musical community. Following Rachmaninoff’s The Bells, he hushed the applause and spoke from the podium to wish the audience and the orchestra a happy Thanksgiving. Then he bid farewell until January and left the stage as the audience began to file out of the hall.
His gesture was particularly striking—and clearly genuine—because Nelsons isn’t a particularly natural public speaker. In performance, one gets the sense that his musical ideas are more intuitive than intellectual, and in interviews he shies away from precise responses in favor of vague but endearing tropes about the importance of musical family and spirituality. It may be the case that he is more eloquent in Latvian than in English, but still it seems likely that his most natural mode of expression is through music.
Nelson’s fall repertoire choices fit well with this quality. The programs seemed to chart a middle path between the popular eclecticism and the blatantly thematic programing to which some orchestras are turning, and the music was allowed to speak for itself. There was a clear Slavic and Scandinavian thread running through the concerts, but if the selections from Sibelius, Gubaidulina, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev were connected in some scholarly way, it wasn’t apparent.
There was also a generous helping of new works—anyone who doubts Nelsons’s commitment to contemporary music should take a closer look. He may not present himself as a zealous new music advocate, but the proof is in the programs. Admittedly not everything was a success: Brett Dean’s trumpet concerto Dramatis Personae was almost universally panned, but it fared particularly poorly in comparison with Gubaidulina’s Offertorium from the week before, and the Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds’s Lakes Awake at Dawn the week after. This piece, co-commissioned by the BSO and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, featured the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in settings of English-language poems by the Latvian poet Inga Ābele and by the composer himself. Colorfully scored, it sounded thoughtful and fresh, and listening to it brought on the sense of discovery that comes with the best premieres. It’s also an encouraging clue to Nelsons’s preferences in new music: the program note says that when the BSO asked him who he would like to commission, Ešenvalds was his first choice.
Nelsons has also made a personal mark on the BSO’s lineup of soloists. Håkan Hardenberger, the trumpet soloist in the Dean, was something of a role model for Nelsons (who began his career as a trumpet player) and Baiba Skride, the violin soloist in the Gubaidulina, went to high school with the conductor. The Rachmaninoff performance also introduced three European singers each making their BSO debuts: soprano Victoria Yastrebova, tenor Pavel Černoch, and the especially remarkable bass-baritone Kostas Smoriginas. And of course, the opening night welcomed Nelson’s wife, the soprano Kristine Opolais in an opera gala with tenor Jonas Kaufmann.
Clearly Nelsons intends to import some of his artistic circle to Boston and move beyond the regular circuit of well-known soloists. But he will also need to work with American artists and make an effort to really establish himself as a member of the hometown musical community.
The final November concert seemed to acknowledge this issue. In addition to the Ešenvalds and Rachmaninoff, the sprawling program featured two of Boston’s most quintessential artists: Yo-Yo Ma and John Harbison. Nelsons and Ma didn’t seem to have an obvious chemistry in the opening movement of Prokofiev’s devilishly difficult Symphony-Concerto, but in the end the performance shaped up into a tour de force. Basking in applause, Nelsons sat down in an empty chair and wiped his brow to telegraph his exhaustion. In response, Ma sat down on the stage floor to demonstrate his even greater exhaustion from tackling the solo cello part. It was a nice break in the usual concert hall formality—spontaneous and personable.
The opening piece of the program was Harbison’s Koussevitzky Said:, a “choral scherzo” that sets some of the late music director’s idiosyncratic sayings. Originally written to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Tanglewood in 2012, the piece was repurposed here and seemed to take on new (and humorous) meaning with Nelsons on the podium. “I am depriving Europe of my art in order to give your town the best of my artistry,” the chorus at one point sings. Hopefully Nelsons can take a hint and make this a promise.