All eyes are on the energetic – and telegenic — Andris Nelsons when he bounds across the stage of Boston Symphony Hall to take his place at the conductor’s podium, his sheer physicality a performance unto itself. At 35 years old, Nelsons is one of the youngest and most electrifying conductors on the international scene today and the youngest music director to lead the BSO in more than 100 years. He might also be the only one to have ever been a student of martial arts. Prior to his arrival in Boston, the Latvia native was music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), where he earned critical acclaim. Born in Riga to a family of musicians, Nelsons began his career as a trumpeter in the Latvian National Opera Orchestra before studying to be conductor. He is married to the internationally renowned soprano Kristine Opolais, who joined him on stage for his first opening night leading the storied Boston Symphony Orchestra.
AS A YOUNG CONDUCTOR, WHAT DID THE BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA MEAN TO YOU? WHAT WERE YOUR FIRST IMPRESSIONS?
As a music student growing up in Latvia, I was aware of the leading position of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), one of the world’s greatest orchestras. I followed the careers of several BSO‘s legendary music directors, especially Serge Koussevitzky, Charles Munch, Erich Leinsdorf, and Seiji Ozawa, and more recently, James Levine. I remember listening to many BSO recordings and feeling overwhelmed by the extraordinary performances. I never imagined that I would become this orchestra’s music director!
WHAT’S BEEN THE BIGGEST SURPRISE ABOUT BOSTON AUDIENCES FOR YOU SO FAR?
The enthusiasm that the Boston audiences has shown to me, has touched me deeply. I have always heard that the Boston audiences were passionate music lovers—and it is very true! They also are generous in expressing pride and love for the orchestra. The BSO has been a great inspiration and joy for many of our patrons. My hope is to do all I can to continue to inspire them to ever greater levels of satisfaction and reward.
IS THE ORCHESTRA DIFFERENT TODAY THAN WHEN YOU FIRST GUEST-CONDUCTED IN 2011?
I don’t know that I can speak to how different the orchestra is today than it was in 2011. When I conducted the orchestra for the first time in March 2011, I was overwhelmed by the beauty and power the orchestra displayed in Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. It is a very difficult piece of music, but we developed quickly a good connection and were able to make incredible music together. My joy nearly four years later comes from getting to know the orchestra better. I enjoy meeting and getting to know each individual musician, knowing them by name. This helps us work better together and make some great music.
WE’RE IN THE AGE OF “NEW” MEDIA. DID YOUR TRAINING AS A MUSICIAN AND A CONDUCTOR PREPARE YOU FOR YOUR NEW ROLE AS HOLOGRAM AT SYMPHONY HALL?
I have never participated in the creation of a hologram before, so it was fun to see how they created the 3D image. It’s both strange and exciting to stand next to your own talking and moving hologram – and I was happy to see that I have lost some weight since recording the image last July! I hope our wonderful patrons enjoyed this technology, and that the hologram and overall exhibit communicated some interesting and new information, especially to newcomers to the BSO.
IS THE ROLE OF CONDUCTOR OF A WORLD-CLASS ORCHESTRA OF THE 21’ST CENTURY DIFFERENT THAN IT WAS FOR YOUR HISTORIC COUNTERPARTS?
I would say that it is a faster moving world today, of course it is, and this pace applies to all aspects of modern life! However, in contrast, the fundamental role of the conductor has not changed so much at all on the podium. This profession is still based on personal communication and it rather stands the test of time in this sense. It’s such a magical and of historic profession.
BOSTON HAS A REPUTATION FOR BEING A FAIRLY TRADITIONAL CITY. CAN YOU GIVE US A PREVIEW OF ANY EXCITING, NEW WORK YOU’LL BE INTRODUCING?
The Boston Symphony Orchestra has always presented many new interesting compositions with major composers as Bartok, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Babbitt, Birtwistle, Carter, and Saariaho, and many others, and also significant premieres. So there is no doubt that with the great repertoire that we all love so deeply—music of Brahms, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, etc.—we will also explore works by new composers and go back to some of the works of the 20th and 21st centuries that have made the recent history of classical music. Sophia Gubaidulina’s Offertorium is a great example of bringing back a late 20th century work that is now considered a masterpiece of our field—and Baiba Skride’s recent performances captured the extraordinary sound of Ms. Gubaidulina’s composition. This season we’ve also programmed works by Boston composers Gunther Schuller, John Harbison, and Michael Gandolfi, as well as works by Australian composer Brett Dean and my Latvian compatriot Eriks Esenvalds. Our audiences have responded very enthusiastically to what we have performed so far. We will continue to explore new works and bring the very best of music to our wonderful patrons.
For further information about the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a complete spring schedule, visit Boston Symphony or click here for complete programs, ticket information, photos, press documents, and artist bios.
This weekend the Boston Symphony Orchestra opened its 2011/2012 season, the first sans longstanding conductor James Levine. On the program were Mozart’s five violin concertos, performed over two consecutive evenings. It was a bold choice for the BSO, as of those five concertos only two—the third in G Major and the fifth in A Major—enjoy any notable popularity. The first and second concertos, while clear examples of Mozart’s early musical genius, are hardly ever played. The fourth is played more frequently than the first two, but not by any great margin. Clearly, the BSO understood: the third and the fifth concertos were slated for Friday’s Opening Gala; the remaining first, second and fourth concertos, the night thereafter.
The reason the BSO could afford potentially putting off its patrons with the latter program of less-popular material was simple: Anne-Sophie Mutter, the acclaimed German virtuoso, was scheduled to lead the orchestra as both soloist and conductor. While Ms. Mutter possesses many of the ‘star soloist’ characteristics that sell tickets–an award-winning recording career, performances in every major city, with every major orchestra, a sterling educational pedigree, etc–what separates her from her contemporaries is not her glittering CV. It is, rather, the distinctive and arresting emotional language of her playing.
That said, in the spirit of putting my attention span to the test, I opted for the latter of the two programs. [Having played the third and the fifth concertos in my younger years, I had little interest in seeing them performed. Frankly, even the rich musicality I expect of Ms. Mutter could not have erased the memories of being forced to play those works. All that frothiness, the lightness of bow, the incessant trills and superfluous grace notes. Give me Dvořák’s Concerto in a minor or give me death, thank you very much.]
When I entered Symphony Hall just before 8PM on Saturday there wasn’t an empty seat in sight, save, thankfully, for mine. It is a testament to Ms. Mutter’s appeal that such a program appeared to be sold out, an otherwise unlikely scenario for a roster of concertos which most of the audience had doubtfully ever heard.
On the stage there was a significantly pared-down ensemble–one more in keeping with the chamber ensembles that would have performed these concertos during Mozart’s era. This more intimate arrangement, coupled with the lingering absence of Mr. Levine, seemed to suggest that the BSO would be doing things a bit differently this season. But the real focus was always Ms. Mutter, as the entire audience waited with bated breath for her to grace the stage.
Ms. Mutter did, in fact, grace the stage. First, with a black silk-satin and chiffon gown, and then, and much more notably, with her musicianship.
Throughout the program, she demonstrated an incredible range of voice in her approach, shifting effortlessly from fury to finesse, from defiant, heavy-fisted vigor to the most ephemeral effervescence. In each of the three concertos, she transformed perfectly ordinary motifs into something divine: sustained single notes which hovered above the room for a time and then melted away into nothingness; passages rife with deceptively difficult technical feats, wherein Ms. Mutter would jump from the G string to the E string (that is, skipping the two middle strings altogether) with aplomb; and her handling of Mozart’s characteristic, and nearly constant, trills–the rapid fluctuation between two notes. Typically, trills are almost purely decorative, but in Ms. Mutter’s hands they were sublime phrases in their own right, evocative of mischievous songbirds.
And yes, her many cadenzas–those perfunctory exhibitions of sprawling technical virtuosity–were certainly impressive, but it was during the fleeting minor motifs that she most impressed herself upon the audience. In these passages her tone was at its richest, languid and robust, one supple sostenuto after another. She seemed to burrow into the somber phrases and then languorously emerge, as if with a prolonged sigh. In short, her command of her instrument was often eclipsed by the conviction with which she played, inviting the audience into a musical experience as rare as it was otherworldly.
It is true that her sometimes less-than-traditional approach has earned her a Purist critic here and there, and I will admit that Ms. Mutter did seem most at home in Mozart’s music when she was playing his lighthearted Classical-era motifs with her trademark Romantic-era pathos. Yes, she took certain liberties: a generous and wide Germanic vibrato (which is not wholly historically accurate), a reoccurring rubato (the lingering to elongate a phrase–again, not wholly historically accurate considering how often it was employed outside of the composer’s notations), and, perhaps most frequently, her playing many already-rather-fast passages so rapidly that they were nearly indistinguishable, save for the passing effect they created. But it was precisely because of these liberties that the concertos, which to me have always felt claustrophobic in their ebullient simplicity, were suddenly fresh and relevant, intensely expressive instead of merely elegant.
The BSO did a commendable job of complementing Ms. Mutter’s musicality, especially considering that concertos like Mozart’s have a way of relegating the ensemble to a strictly supporting role. This pared-down setting seemed instead to highlight the individual musicians, affording a level of nuance often lost to the grand swell of a full symphonic setting. Gone was the stiffness, the separation between ensemble and soloist, the rigid call-and-response. At times, the relationship between the BSO and Ms. Mutter was so intimate I felt as though I was watching a relaxed rehearsal among close friends.
For the Boston Symphony Orchestra, this opening night series could have served to underscore the absence of Mr. Levine. Instead, it was a resounding celebration of those present: the dynamic virtuoso and the committed musicians of the BSO who, with or without their beloved conductor, are not only moving forward, but moving ahead.
EDITOR AT LARGE
CHIEF FASHION CORRESPONDENT
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