Warm welcome: Andris Nelsons takes charge of the BSO

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Andris Nelson conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra in his ingural concert as music Director, 9/27/14. Photo Chris Lee.

Andris Nelson conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra in his ingural concert as music Director, 9/27/14. Photo Chris Lee.

A Gala concert at Symphony Hall marked the first time Andris Nelsons led the Boston Symphony as its 15th Music Director (at Tanglewood this past summer, he was still Music Director Designate). He of course received a warm welcome from the audience—a standing ovation—as warm as the ovations that greeted Seiji Ozawa and James Levine. Since Levine resigned in 2011 for health reasons, BSO subscribers and attendees have been longing for someone to be in charge. Nelsons has had considerable success on the world’s concert and opera stages, and he comes across as a serious and humble musician, while the newspapers seem to be trying to turn him into the Anti-Levine: an athletic (throwing—embarrassingly—a first pitch at a Red Sox game) regular guy (driving one of the Tanglewood motorized carts—even though he doesn’t drive) and family-man (Levine had a mother and brother) who has recently lost weight, is looking for an apartment to rent in the Boston area (Levine stayed at a hotel), and does not seem interested in Elliott Carter.

The Gala wasn’t the first BSO concert of the season. That one took place a week and a half earlier, with Brazilian Associate Conductor Marcelo Lehninger leading the very first BSO performance of Heitor Villa Lobos’s famously gorgeous Bachianas brasileiras (“Brazilian Bach stuff”) No. 5, with its eight cellos and humming soprano (Nicole Cabell); Mozart’s gracious Sinfonia concertante for winds (which might not actually be by—but certainly sounds like—Mozart); and a propulsive Beethoven Fifth Symphony. A very appealing and enjoyable concert.

But because Nelsons still had some scheduling conflicts (he’s still the music director of the Birmingham Symphony until next summer), the “opening” Gala came later (it’s happened before, most notably with Levine). Nelsons brought along with him the most celebrated tenor in the opera world, Jonas Kaufmann, in his eagerly anticipated Boston debut, and his own wife, the Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais, for an evening of arias and duets by Wagner, Mascagni, and Puccini, along with orchestral pieces by Wagner, Mascagni, and Respighi. Sections of orchestra seats were removed so TV cameras—including one on a big swerving boom, near the stage—could record the concert for PBS’s Great Performances. 

At the last minute, Opolais substituted Puccini’s most famous aria, Madama Butterfly’s “Un bel dì,” for the originally scheduled “Ebben? Ne andrò lontano,” from Alfredo Catalani’s La Wally, which foreign film aficionados might remember from the 1981 movie Diva, and which the BSO hadn’t performed at Symphony Hall since 1911 (though Renée Fleming sang it once at Tanglewood). The program ended with an orchestral showpiece, Ottorino Respighi’s The Pines of Rome (1924), which had no evident connection to the opera excerpts that preceded it. This Gala was more like a high-end Pops concert, one that could open any season, rather than an illuminating introduction to an important musician.

In his New York Times review (“A Conductor Tries to Soar Amid High Expectations”), Anthony Tommasini lamented the missed opportunity for Nelsons to make some kind of identifying musical statement, especially to suggest a commitment to contemporary music. He referred to Gustavo Dudamel’s inaugural concert as director of the LA Philharmonic including a major new work by John Adams, and Alan Gilbert’s directorship of the New York Philharmonic beginning with the premiere of a new work by Magnus Lindberg. Levine’s inaugural “Gala” was Mahler’s mighty Eighth Symphony.

But in some way, this concert was a statement of identity. Nelsons hasn’t shown any great passion for contemporary music or, aside from Stravinsky and Bartók, musical Modernism, especially difficult and challenging composers like (shudder!) Arnold Schoenberg or Elliott Carter, central figures in the Levine regime but anathema to traditionalist members of the audience. For a Young Turk, still only 35, Nelsons is surprisingly conservative in his musical tastes—which may be one of the major reasons for his popularity.

Among his best qualities are, of course, youthful energy and exuberance and a palpable love of what he’s doing. On videos, he’s almost always smiling (and not always where it seems appropriate), or else he’s gritting his teeth. He dips and crouches, leans dangerously forward and bends dangerously backward (often holding onto the podium railing). He has a good ear for instrumental color and timbre. He allows the audience to share his pleasure in subtle sonic detail. Along with this, comes a real sense of dynamics—clear distinctions in volume. He can get the orchestra to play very loud (as in Christopher Rouse’s Rapture at Tanglewood last summer, or at the brassy conclusion of the “Appian Way” movement that closes The Pines of Rome, with trumpets in the second balcony) and also very soft (as at the end of his Lohengrin accompaniment for Jonas Kaufmann, when Wagner recalls the ethereal strings of the Overture). Given his experience as an opera conductor, he’s a very sympathetic accompanist for singers—he follows their lead. He certainly made every effort to get the BSO to play quietly under Opolais’s lightweight singing in Wagner’s “Liebestod” (though given her vocal limitations here he didn’t entirely succeed).

But he also has some serious musical limitations that have pretty consistently compromised his performances, and they were in ample evidence during the Gala. His biggest problem has to do with rhythm. One of the major challenges facing any conductor, and which the truly great conductors have either figured out or (more likely) dealt with instinctively, is how to make slow music move forward. One of the most forward-leaning pieces of slow music ever composed is the opening of Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan und Isolde. It’s all yearning, reaching, aching for an emotional and tonal resolution that doesn’t come until the end of the opera, some five hours later. Nelsons’s conducting of this piece was so static, it felt as if the music were looking not forward but backward—a limp nostalgia over something past rather than a desperate yearning for something to come. Just the opposite of what Wagner is depicting. And in the Tannhäuser Overture, which began the concert, the Pilgrim’s March was so slow, so plodding, the marchers seemed to be treading in place, not marching at all—would they ever reach Rome? Several critics voiced their sense of irony that Nelsons’s best work of the evening was in the schlocky Respighi. The fast-paced opening and the blazing finale were certainly effective. But the long slow movement depicting the Roman catacombs dragged, and here the music itself isn’t interesting enough to carry the weight.

For all his energy on the podium, Nelsons is also a micromanager, so that he falls into the trap of sacrificing the long through-line, the architecture, for the sake of the small detail; too often shifting tempos and ignoring the music’s underlying pulse. Shirley Apthorp in the British Financial Times reviewed his August concert at the Lucerne Festival in which, leading Brahms’s Third Symphony, he replaced the late Claudio Abbado. Nelsons’s “attempt to make the music meaningful,” she writes, “resulted in something heavy, sluggish, and over-formed; there were few moments of magic.”

And for all his synesthetic ear for musical color, it’s disappointing that he won’t divide the first and second violins antiphonally, as Levine did, making the full orchestral sound of the BSO in the warmly reverberant acoustic of Symphony Hall airier, more spacious, more “stereophonic.” I hope he reconsiders as he gets to know the hall better, or gets to listen to the guest conductors who follow this practice.

Then there was the singing. I didn’t hear Opolais in the Verdi Requiem at Tanglewood two summers ago (the concert that a concussion prevented Nelsons from conducting), but hearing her at Symphony Hall, I find it hard to imagine her in dramatic Verdi roles. She’s got a pretty voice that’s also a little generic, without much built-in personality in its sound. She certainly wasn’t doing herself any favors attempting to sing Wagner’s “Liebestod”—Isolde’s ecstatic submission to Love and Death, which comes at the very end of Tristan und Isolde. The role is usually performed by a heroic soprano, but it can also be successfully sung with a less than heroic voice if there’s an intensely intimate, “spoken” quality to its delivery. Opolais had neither, and it seemed embarrassing that she had to resort to using a score (and, therefore, turning pages) during this very famous work. She obviously—too obviously—didn’t feel very secure, but this was too important an occasion for her not to have it memorized. Her high notes lacked fullness, her low notes disappeared into the orchestral shadows, and her diction was too mushy to be clearly understood. What a bizarre way to introduce herself to a Boston audience. Then for all the hype about her Butterfly, “Un bel dì” was another (though lesser) disappointment. There were hand gestures and arm wavings, but I didn’t hear much dramatic engagement in her voice.

On the other hand, there was Kaufmann. (A couple of thousand people must be deeply grateful to Catherine and Paul Buttenwieser—he’s the new president of the BSO trustees—for their generous gift supporting Kaufmann’s appearance.) He was in magnificent voice. His presence was electric, and he sang everything by (and with) heart—no distracting scores. For many singers, it’s a struggle to be heard in Symphony Hall. But even Kaufmann’s quietest singing (talk about dynamic range!) filled the cavernous auditorium. In Wagner’s “In fernem Land” (In a distant land), the aria in which Lohengrin finally reveals his mysterious identity and therefore must leave his beloved but too-curious Elsa, the tenor delivered what the Globe’s Jeremy Eichler accurately called “the most entrancing six minutes of the evening.” This was singing of ineffable, glowing sweetness and sadness, soaring to heroic climaxes of spiritual fervor. It was Nelsons’s best work of the evening as well. Too bad an enthusiastic audience member’s ill-timed “Bravo!” prevented the rest of us from savoring that shimmering diminuendo.

After intermission, we were off to Italy. Kaufmann returned to sing the Sicilian soldier Turiddu’s passionate farewell to his mother from Cavalleria rusticana—exchanging Lohengrin’s elegance for Turiddu’s full-hearted earthiness. Following Opolais’s Butterfly aria, Nelson’s led a sweet but uneventful Intermezzo from Cavalleria (why wasn’t this connected to Kaufmann’s Mascagni?), and then Opolais and Kaufmann sang the big seduction scene from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (which they’ve appeared in together before). A climactic full-frontal kiss italicized Manon’s success luring Des Grieux back into her web. “We are friends,” Opolais’s husband reassured the audience after this impassioned love scene that took place right behind his back.

He went on to say what a pleasure it was to see us all there, and for him to be leading “the world’s best singers, with the world’s best orchestra, in the world’s best concert hall.” Much applause. And then an added unscheduled (but well-rehearsed) treat. Another —and this time more familiar—love duet: “O soave fanciulla,” which brings down the curtain on the first act of La bohème. Kaufmann was in delightfully teasing mood, and here the two singers blended even more luminously. Opolais’s voice seemed suddenly freer, even—maybe especially—after she and Kaufmann turned their backs to the audience, singing “Amor” as they disappeared down the imaginary garret staircase. It was 10:00 pm and what a perfect note that would have been on which to end the Gala. But The Pines of Rome still loomed… .

Four days later, Nelsons was back with his first official subscription concert as music director: a more coherent, centrist program of Beethoven, Bartók, and Tchaikovsky. The Beethoven Eighth Symphony is the composer’s shortest and brightest. And because one doesn’t get to hear it too often, it’s always welcome. The orchestra was in good shape, and it all went smoothly—much better than Nelsons’s disjointed Beethoven Fifth at Tanglewood—except that it didn’t have much individual profile or a real philosophical or emotional center. What reasons were there aside from programmatic ones to do it at all? What are Nelson’s feelings about it? Does he have anything new or personal to say about it? With no real slow movement (the slowest is marked Allegretto), at least it didn’t drag.

Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin (the last of his three theatrical works, more or less completed by 1924) is a half-hour theater piece, a pantomime not a ballet, based on a “grotesque pantomime” written in 1916 by Melchior Lengyel. Movie buffs might be interested to know that he’s the Hungarian playwright who went to Hollywood and wrote the original stories for two great political satires, Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (“Garbo laughs!”), for which he received an Oscar nomination, and the anti-Nazi To Be or Not to Be, with Jack Benny and Carole Lombard. The pantomime is a sinister fantasy about a prostitute luring men into her room to be robbed by her three henchmen. The Mandarin is the third victim, and he seems impervious to their threats, even to being smothered, stabbed, and hanged. He finally succumbs when the woman offers him her love. The music is of hair-raising dramatic immediacy—city noises full of lewd and lascivious innuendos, sexy dances. After the premiere, Bartók made a shorter “suite,” eliminating the last ten minutes, that is often performed, as it was here, instead of the complete score. Seiji Ozawa led both versions and they were among his showstoppers. The BSO can probably play it even without a conductor. The winds and brass seemed to be having a blast and Nelsons didn’t let them down. Though once again there was no particular personal stamp, this isn’t really a piece that requires one.

But there was in Tchaikovsky’s sixth and final symphony, the Pathétique. The opening had a sense of tension I hadn’t heard before in these two concerts and rarely elsewhere from Nelsons. The opening sounded both mercurial and neurotic. A real point of view. And the statement of the second theme, one of Tchaikovsky’s great melodies and the most famous music in the symphony, was unusually understated, Nelsons avoiding the usual bloat. He led that downward descending line not as grand romantic rhapsodizing but almost like a sigh, so that love and despair were inextricably interwoven. Then when Tchaikovsky explodes and this theme speeds up to a sudden manic energy—very Russian—it was a real wake-up. Instinct? The Slavic soul? Wonderful musicianship? The tilted second-movement 5/4 Waltz , the vigorous third-movement March, and the hopeless Adagio lamentoso finale—everything worked.

Then how much richer this would have sounded if the violins were divided and we felt surrounded by that warmth? And what if the cellos were emerging from within the heart of the orchestra, not from the outer edge of the stage? Still, here for the first time I’ve heard Nelsons this year, it seemed that he was actually engaging with the score (he uses a very small one—he must have very keen eyesight) rather than just letting it happen. He’ll be back the weekend of  November 6 with another great Russian piece, Sofia Gubaidulina’s wrenching violin concerto from the 1980s, Offertorium, with his countrywoman Baiba Skride as soloist, and another longtime BSO staple from Northern climes, the Sibelius Symphony No. 2.

About the author

Lloyd Schwartz

Lloyd Schwartz, Senior Editor of Classical Music at New York Arts, is Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a regular commentator on music and the arts for NPR’s Fresh Air. For 35 years, he was Classical Music Editor of the Boston Phoenix. He is the author of four poetry collections (most recently Little Kisses, U of Chicago Press) and the editor of three volumes by and about poet Elizabeth Bishop, including the Library of America’s Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters. His poems, articles, and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Opera News, Vanity Fair, New Republic, Paris Review, Ploughshares, The Pushcart Prize, Best American Poetry, and The Best of the Best American Poetry. He’s a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for his writing about music, and the recipient of a grant from the Amphion Foundation for his writing on contemporary music. In 1994, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.

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