Artist of the Year:
Andris Nelsons

By Brian McCreath

Their chemistry onstage is unmistakable. The result so far is two consecutive Grammy awards for Best Orchestra Performances. With disarming sincerity, casual generosity, and boundless optimism, he
has released the potential of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

2018 Muscial America Artist of the Year:<br>Andris Nelsons
© 2017 Hilary Scott/BSO

“Fore!” Andris Nelsons on his golf cart outside the Koussevitzky Music Shed at Tanglewood. 

A reverence for the past surrounds virtually every square foot of Tanglewood, the beautiful summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The expansive lawn and spectacular Berkshire vistas are anchored by echoes of Koussevitzky, Copland, and Bernstein. The Visitor Center even displays the elegantly dashing cape, walking stick, and wingtip shoes Serge Koussevitzky himself wore as he surveyed the rustic earliest iterations of Tanglewood. It’s charming. It also reinforces the perception of conductors as aristocratic and distanced.

Tooling down the path
In the summer of 2014, though, one of the buzziest conversation starters in the VIP pavilions, was ... golf carts. Andris Nelsons, who at that time was soon to fill the post Koussevitzky once held as BSO music director, found more than a little delight in taking the wheel of the carts normally used by the Tanglewood staff for everything from delivering the mail to shuttling those VIPs around. Sightings of the smiling 6-foot-1-inch conductor, dressed in loudly patterned, loose-fitting shirts, tooling down the path between the Koussevitzky Music Shed and Seiji Ozawa Hall became a highlight of visits to the Berkshires.

The contrast between that stylish 1930’s outfit and a cheerfully driven golf cart says a lot about what makes Andris Nelsons, Musical America’s Artist of the Year, one of the most inspiring conductors on the planet today. Disarming sincerity, casual generosity, and boundless optimism inform everything Nelsons does, from short, passing conversations (sometimes even from the seat of a golf cart) to the eye contact he makes with musicians during the most tightly coiled moments on the concert stage. Each of those interactions cements, to one degree or another, an empowering interpersonal connection.

The shorthand for this gift is “charisma.” But with the baggage that term can carry, it doesn’t quite encompass what these connections truly mean. Charisma can spark excitement and, maybe, lead to career opportunities. What Nelsons generates through his spirit and warmth goes beyond that. Those around him, from the sections of the orchestra to the executive offices and even the audience, are brought into a circle, each entity reinforcing the others, ultimately fueling the motivation of Nelsons himself.

In September of 2014, the first concert Nelsons conducted as music director for the Boston Symphony began with the Overture to Wagner’s Tannhäuser, a choice that went far beyond an impressive 15 or so minutes of orchestral color. It was a symbolic throwback. Nelsons was five years old when he was taken to a performance of Tannhäuser (let’s pause to reflect on that for a moment ... a five-year-old at Tannhäuser... OK, back to the story). To this day, he considers that experience the pivotal moment of his young life.

Ever-present music
Music was already ever present at that point. His mother is a music teacher, and choral singing is so deeply rooted in Latvian culture that, especially through the post-World War II years, it helped hold the country together in a way Soviet authorities had no answer for. Evening gatherings of musicians, poets, priests, and other various intellectuals were a regular part of life in the household in which Nelsons grew up. He was a quiet kid, who would sit amongst the adults, absorbing whatever he heard. Only later did it become clear to him that such meetings were not, shall we say, encouraged in the Soviet satellite state.

Although Nelsons grew up singing, it was the trumpet that eventually took over as the primary vehicle of his musical life. While he was still in school, he took a job as principal trumpet in the orchestra of the Latvian National Opera, and it wasn’t long before he began studying conducting. He eventually found himself regularly catching a post-matinee overnight train from Riga to St. Petersburg for a full-immersion approach to studying conducting. He would stay for a day, a week, sometimes even two weeks at a time before returning on another overnight train in time to make it to morning rehearsal for the opera, all while continuing to freelance and study trumpet. This went on for two years in an exhausting routine that only a young adult would consider reasonable.

Fellow Latvian Mariss Jansons became a long-term mentor when, after performing in Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique as a last-minute sub for an ailing trumpeter in Jansons’s touring Oslo Philharmonic in Riga, Nelsons declined a paycheck on the condition that Jansons would coach him. He was named music director of the Latvian National Opera, where he grappled with the complexity only opera can present and, along the way, met his wife, soprano Kristine Opolais. He also took an additional post at the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie in Herford, Germany.

The leap to international visibility arrived in 2008 when Nelsons became music director for an orchestra that clearly has a knack for identifying conducting talent. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, well known for the dynamic two-and-a-half decades Simon Rattle spent there, brought Nelsons in to succeed Sakari Oramo. (At this writing, the orchestra seems on track to benefit from yet another savvy hire in the form of Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla as the successor to Nelsons.)

Nelsons’s reputation grew through CBSO performances and recordings, along with guest appearances at the Berlin Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. He also began conducting at the Metropolitan Opera, where, in the spring of 2011, he led Met performances of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades. Coincidentally, the Boston Symphony Orchestra was scheduled to perform at Carnegie Hall on March 17. But the BSO was in a bind. After years of cancellations due to health issues, Music Director James Levine had not only cancelled again—he also resigned from his post. Nelsons happened to have the night off from the Met when the BSO would perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 9. After hastily made arrangements for a couple of rehearsals, Nelsons stepped onto the Carnegie stage for his first concert with the orchestra.

If the Nelsons-BSO Mahler Ninth at Carnegie that night wasn’t one for the ages, the chemistry on stage was nevertheless unmistakable. His subsequent participation in the 75th-anniversary concert of Tanglewood in 2012 and a Symphony Hall debut in January of 2013 won the day, and in May 2013 the orchestra and Nelsons announced his appointment as music director, beginning the following year.

Releasing the orchestra's potential
Andris Nelsons shares plenty of qualities with other top-rank conductors. He devours orchestral scores. His sense of time is impeccable, his ear for balance and sonic color exquisite. But he also brings to his work what BSO Artistic Administrator Anthony Fogg describes as a unique ability to “release the potential of the orchestra.” So far, the result is two consecutive Grammy awards for Best Orchestral Performance, along with glowing reviews from Symphony Hall and Tanglewood that are echoed throughout tour stops in Europe and Asia. Guest artists like violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and soprano Barbara Hannigan (who knows a thing or two about conducting herself) enthusiastically comment on the charge their own performances get from Nelsons and the BSO.

Epic performances, though, are only part of what makes a conductor into a music director. In top orchestras, long-term organizational decisions lead to the rise or fall of multi-million dollar budgets. A couple of years into his time at the BSO, the warmth and empowerment so evident in Nelsons on stage expanded into the planning discussions of two of those top orchestras. When all was said and done, an unprecedented partnership had been forged.

The story starts during Nelsons’s second season in Boston, when even experienced observers of the field were caught by surprise as he was named as the next Kapellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus, beginning in 2018. Minor panic rifled through Boston audiences and media, wondering if they had been jilted before the honeymoon was even over. But Mark Volpe, the BSO’s managing director, immediately made it clear that the orchestra knew from the very start with Nelsons that a second long-term appointment was always in the cards, as would be the case for many conductors of his caliber. All understood that it would be in Europe. It was only a question of which orchestra it would be.

When it turned out to be Leipzig, an astonishing number of historical connections between the two orchestras quickly moved to the center of internal conversations on both sides of the Atlantic. Some of those connections are purely historical, like the fact that several music directors of the BSO, including the very first, Georg Henschel, and the legendary Charles Munch, either studied in Leipzig and/or were members of the Gewandhaus Orchestra. Another connection has an effect on a daily basis for the BSO: The acoustically superior design of Boston’s Symphony Hall is modeled on that of the “Second Gewandhaus,” a concert hall that opened in 1884 and was, 60 years later, destroyed in World War II.

A unique arrangement
Nelsons, acutely aware of each orchestra’s substantial history as well as those connections, was in the thick of discussions between the management teams, envisioning something beyond a simple sharing of his time. What emerged is a unique arrangement that, over five years, will build on those historical ties to create an active partnership between the BSO and the Gewandhaus Orchestra. They’ll engage in a range of collaborations, including tour appearances by each ensemble in the other’s home city, commissions of new works, musician exchanges, and programming that highlights each organization’s historical legacy. Students from the Tanglewood Music Center will study in Leipzig, and their counterparts from the Mendelssohn Orchestra Academy in Leipzig will study at Tanglewood. What could have been a mere scheduling exercise between two major organizations became an opportunity rich with artistic possibility, largely due to Nelsons’s empowerment of those around him.

A more traditional yet still, for today’s world, unusually ambitious project is a recording schedule he has mapped out with Deutsche Grammophon, one that emerged through, if not pure serendipity, then at least an opportune convergence of forces. Once again, Nelsons is the catalyst, releasing the dormant potential of the musicians, the orchestra management, and the label.

Shostakovich’s music was all but absent on BSO programs during the Levine years. But Nelsons lived through a childhood amidst the Soviet system at the heart of those works. They resonate deeply for him and were already central to his artistic profile. As Nelsons took the reins in Boston, Shostakovich suddenly moved from the fringe to the center of the orchestra’s activity. For the BSO and DG the prospect of reanimating their once historic relationship was irresistible. They hammered out a plan for a series of recordings they would call “Under Stalin’s Shadow.”

Encompassing Shostakovich’s Symphonies Nos. 4-10, to say the project has thus far been a success for all involved would be a vast understatement. (The two aforementioned Grammys were awarded for the first two volumes in the series.) Now the scope of the project has expanded to include all 15 of the composer’s symphonies. Internally, it has galvanized the BSO as an organization. It also turned out to be the launching pad of an exclusive contract between DG and Nelsons. The first of a series of Bruckner symphony recordings with the Gewandhaus Orchestra has already been released, and a complete Beethoven cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic isn’t far away.

The pace of such a recording schedule, the leadership of two major orchestras an ocean apart, and attending to a family in which his spouse has an international opera career could be a recipe for a frenetic swirl of an existence. But Nelsons maintains a focused simplicity, drawing on the discipline that carried him through his teenage years, when he studied martial arts and practiced the trumpet six hours per day. As he approaches 40, he is becoming more and more aware of the physicality of his profession and the increasing necessity of those healthy routines. He is now playing the trumpet again, not so much with an eye on performing, but rather as a tool that recharges that discipline of years ago, as the constant lip slurs and arpeggios emanating from the Symphony Hall conductor’s green room attest.

'Owning' Das Rheingold
Last summer, Nelsons’s affinity for Wagner brought Das Rheingold to Tanglewood for the first time ever. His conducting was both calculated and passionate. The orchestra, tasked with navigating 140 minutes of operatic landscape unfamiliar to most of the players, flexed its considerable might, utterly owning the piece. The cast, led by Thomas J. Mayer’s Wotan and Stephanie Blythe’s Fricka, filled the Koussevitzky Music Shed with Wagner’s supernatural tale of greed, treachery, and death.

Andris Nelsons had, up to that point, already conducted several excellent Tanglewood performances. But with Rheingold that night, he became the author of a slice of Tanglewood history. Thoughts of a BSO Ring cycle in the Berkshires were inescapable for anyone present. The logistics are beyond daunting, but the conversation has begun within the organization. If and when it happens, such a series would, without a doubt, imprint the legacy of Tanglewood with the vision of Andris Nelsons as thoroughly as that of the legends of previous decades.

The possibilities of those ambitions will become clear in the fullness of time. In the moment, Nelsons arrived back at the Shed late the next morning to lead an afternoon concert that included Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, the same work that led to the pivotal meeting with Jansons years before. He was a bit bleary-eyed from the previous night’s Wagner performance, but content and relaxed. And awaiting him just outside the conductor’s room was a Tanglewood golf cart, ready for the next spin around the grounds. •

Brian McCreath is now in his sixth season of producing weekly Boston Symphony Orchestra broadcasts for WCRB and WGBH, where he has been a producer and host of several programs and podcasts since 2004. Previously he played trumpet professionally and worked in artist management.