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Given some of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s distinguished elder statesmen music directors—Karl Muck, Pierre Monteux, Serge Koussevitzky, Charles Munch, Erich Leinsdorf, James Levine—it’s probably surprising that they have appointed 34-year-old Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons to succeed James Levine as the BSO’s 15th music director since 1881. Still, it’s useful to remember that the BSO also has a history of choosing young music directors. German-born conductor, baritone, and composer Georg Henschel, the very first BSO music director, was only 31; and at 33, the BSOs’s third director turned out to be one of the greatest conductors of all time, the charismatic and mesmerizing Hungarian Artur Nikisch, whose early recordings (none of them with the BSO) are still astonishing.
And then there was Seiji Ozawa, who was 38 when he took over the BSO in 1973 and became the orchestra’s longest tenured director, staying for 29 years. Ozawa demonstrated the worry of hiring a still-unformed musician—his instant celebrity seemed to interfere with his growth as a musician. He left the BSO in some disarray, and despite his box-office popularity, few music lovers would turn to Ozawa as a significant master of any repertoire, even his own specialties. When Levine took over, numerous music-lovers who had boycotted the BSO returned to Symphony Hall in droves.
Nelsons has led the BSO only four times—first at Carnegie Hall, rescuing the BSO when Levine was forced to cancel a performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and garnering enthusiastic reviews except in the New York Times. Last summer, he appeared in the Tanglewood 75th Anniversary Gala, leading the BSO in an extremely idiomatic Ravel La Valse that I liked better than some interested listeners, and accompanying Anne Sophie Mutter in Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy with the student Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. The following day he led the BSO in an intricately complicated, perhaps over-subtle Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms and Brahms’s Symphony No. 2.1 He had cancelled his first Symphony Hall subscription concert to be at the birth of his first child, then returned leading a powerful performance of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, with the impressive Latvian violinist Baiba Skride (three years younger than Nelsons), and a visceral Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony that had more moment-to-moment excitement than a longer range structural drive or direction.
Nelsons will be back at Tanglewood this summer, conducting the Verdi Requiem (after Daniele Gatti, perhaps Nelsons’s chief rival, led a disappointing version in Boston). Next October, at Symphony Hall, he’s scheduled to lead Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, Mozart’s grand 25th Piano Concerto with the superb British pianist Paul Lewis, and Brahms’s Third Symphony. He’ll be back in March leading a concert version of Richard Strauss’s Salome. He’s previously conducted opera at the Met and Bayreuth. He’s currently director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (which Simon Rattle put on the map in the 1990s), and with them is recording complete series of Tchaikovsky and Strauss orchestral works. But he’ll be only “music director designate” until the 2014-2015 season, when he officially takes over.
We should all congratulate the BSO for taking the risk of appointing a young and relatively unknown musician. Nelsons’ contract is for five years, and includes concerts at Tanglewood, though there’s been no mention of his taking charge of the BSO’s ambitious summer festival.
I’ve liked Nelsons. Though I was hoping the BSO would wait until they found a more fully-developed leader of major stature (like Levine), I’m certainly curious about someone whose music-making will seem like an adventure. I’m eager to hear more, to see where he goes. Will he be a strong leader? The orchestra has always responded best to someone with strong instincts and insight, and though the playing has been good since Levine’s absence, there’s also been a sense of drift. No wonder the board was so eager to conclude this search.
Just as important as Nelson’s conducting ability will be his choice of programming. How much contemporary music will he bring (it’s death for an orchestra to avoid contemporary music), and what kind? Is he at all interested in American music? Will he have compelling programming ideas (like Levine’s Beethoven/Schoenberg season)? Will he become—or want to become—an active and interested member of the Boston community?
Nelson’s BSO contract runs five years. We wish him well. We wish ourselves well. We live in hope.