The latest installment in the BSO’s marketing of its new, young maestro came in the delayed broadcast last Friday of the September 27th début of Andris Nelsons as the 15th music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra as interpreted and disseminated by PBS’s Great Performance Series. I’m borrowing and adapting my headline from Lee Eiseman’s review [here] of the live performance last September. But unlike Eiseman, I’ll concentrate more on the made-for-TV character of the event, its explicit texts and implicit subtexts, than on the performances themselves. The BSO gurus have created and shaped a package of images and sounds, hopefully targeting and engaging audiences beyond the usual subscriber base.
As we all know it’s a brave new world out there, and classical music is struggling to find an “in” with younger people, in an entertainment-based American society increasingly indifferent to the existence of high culture and to the music and art of the past. In this case, it’s clear that BSO management wants to stress the “people” aspect of their new appointment. The telecast began with a large outdoor banner of Nelsons’s image waving in the air outside Symphony Hall. And the musical performances themselves were punctuated with offstage comments by Nelsons and by his main collaborators, soprano Kristine Opolais and star tenor Jonas Kaufmann. Apart from their unquestionable talent, all of these artists look great in closeup on TV.
Nelsons’s commentaries centered on his personal enthusiasms in relation to the works he performed, his childhood, his partnership with Opolais, and their young daughter. The fact that his wife figured prominently in Nelsons’s inaugural concert, independently of the fact that she performed very well, surely has a lot to do with the wish to create a human face and a normal identity to the BSO’s leader on this go-around. And so, we got a lot of onstage family. But the resulting focus on brief, “greatest hits” opera excerpts for much of the performance, pushed the orchestra itself into a background, supporting role—somewhat unfortunate, in my view, considering the intrinsic importance of the inaugural event.
One of Nelsons’s later interview excerpts had him urging us all to make “classical music” (hmm, I become increasingly uncomfortable with that term) an important part of life; and who could argue with such a wish? I do note, however, that just beneath the marketing department’s intent to get us acquainted with an appealing and gifted young couple, we were offered a deeply conservative style of “light classics” programming, entirely Eurocentric, that would have been perfectly appropriate in Symphony Hall a century ago. Not so very forward-looking, in my view. The corporate, market-driven packaging, combined with the retro, Belle Époque programming style, left me feeling a little uneasy, even as we wish Nelsons well in his undertaking.
I found the orchestral and vocal sound I experienced via WGBH’s stereo signal to be cramped and compressed, with no sense of space or air. Seemingly an excessive use of noise reduction created a “deadness” in the spaces between the notes. The Tannhäuser prelude began too slowly, without the necessary sense of a forward-moving procession, but the effect in the hall, with its excellent acoustics to sustain the players, might have worked much better than what we got in our living rooms.