Nelsons Impressive In Debut as BSO’s Director-Designate

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Andris Nelsons gets a standing ovation after his first concert as Boston Symphony Orchestra music director. (Photos by Marco Borggreve)
Signaling a new era, Andris Nelsons gets standing ovation as Boston Symphony Orchestra music director designate.
Oct. 17, 2013 (Photos by Marco Borggreve)
By Marvin J. Ward

BOSTON – It seemed fitting that Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons, who will become the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s fifteenth music director in the 2014-15 season, should open his first concert as music director designate Oct. 17 at Symphony Hall with Siegfried Idyll by Richard Wagner, one of this year’s two bicentennial opera-composer birthday boys.

A new era for the BSO begins.
Nelsons is youngest to be appointed in more than a century.

Nelsons has said that he was first enraptured by classical music when he attended a performance of Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the age of 5. Nelsons comes to the BSO from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, where his contractual obligations end next season. At 34, he is the youngest conductor to be appointed to the post in more than a century, the third youngest ever, with Georg Henschel, the BSO’s first in 1881, having been only 31, and its third, Arthur Nikisch, only 33 when he took over in 1889. Nelsons was greeted by the nearly full-house audience with an enthusiastic standing ovation the second he walked onto the stage. It was clear that his arrival was eagerly awaited and welcomed.

Nelsons’ conducting style resembles that of many English choral directors and early-music, historically-informed performance conductors: He draws the music out of the players and shapes it rather than commanding or directing them to produce it. He uses both hands, with the baton generally but not always in the right one, using his left for cueing, gesturing, and forming the sound or resting on the rail behind the podium when the passage needs merely to motor along. His entire body is involved: He crouches down, stands up tall, leans forward toward the orchestra or its various sections, or pulls back to listen or savor. It is clear that Nelsons feels, perhaps even senses, the music in every fiber of his being, yet none of his movements are purely demonstrative or overblown; it all seems very natural, an outgrowth of his modest but engaging personality.

Nelsons draws the music out of his players. (Borggreve)
The designate’s conducting style draws the music out of his players.

His rendering of the Siegfried Idyll, conducted without score, was precise, carefully nuanced, with dynamics delicately controlled, and simply exquisite, revealing both the subtle craftsmanship and the sincere sentiment of the work particularly well. The  Idyll is not an operatic piece but rather a chamber music-like one, composed for Wagner’s wife Cosima (daughter of Franz Liszt and Marie d’Agout) for her 33rd birthday (Dec. 25) in 1870 and performed for her as she awoke that morning, with the musicians positioned in the stairwell of their home in Tribschen, near Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. It was initially entitled the Tribschen Idyll, the name given to it by Cosima in her diary entry for that date.

The Siegfried in the title when it was published in 1878 refers not to the character of the eponymous opera, the third in the Ring cycle, but to their son, who was about one and a half at the time of composition and the subject of the dedicatory poem printed as its preface, although some of the melodic material and themes do appear in the opera. The work offers the lush Romanticism for which Wagner is famous, though not in his characteristic grandiose display, but rather quiet, subdued, and sublime, evoking the calm pastoral setting the name of the poetic form suggests.

Nelsons with pianist Paul Lewis in Mozart Piano Concerto No. 25 (Borggreve)
Pianist Paul Lewis, at the keys, joined the festive collaboration.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C major, K.503, followed with soloist Paul Lewis at the keyboard of a Steinway D. This is perhaps the most symphonic, least operatic of the composer’s 27 piano concerti in the sense that the orchestral forces, nearly identical to those of the Siegfied Idyll, are the most numerous and varied, with trumpets and timpani.

The Liverpool-born Lewis is a member of the current generation of younger piano superstars. His technique is impeccable and impressive. He handled the modern instrument much like an earlier one of the type for which Mozart was writing, not an easy task because of the greater strength required due to its mechanism and size as well as the greater depth of descent of its keys, challenging for arpeggiated runs. Lewis’s judicious pedaling – at times none at all – also gave a more authentic feel to his generally fine classical-style interpretation. He played a first-movement cadenza by his teacher, Alfred Brendel. For my taste and for the music, Lewis leans a tad too far towards the “d-e-f-g”-type pianist – the dramatic, exaggerated, flamboyant, gesturing variety – and frequently withdraws his hands from the keyboard in the manner that famously inspired Chopin to ask: “Did you burn yourself?”

The second half was devoted to Brahms’s Symphony No. 3, written fairly rapidly during the summer of 1883. After looking at its score, the pianist and composer Clara Schumann described its second movement as an “Idyll.” It is the most architecturally structured, compact, and shortest of the four symphonies. Like that of the Idyll, the performance was tight and right. It inspired another standing ovation, with two recalls to the stage.

This program will be repeated on Saturday, October 19. For details, click here.

Marvin J. Ward was a founder of Classical Voice of New England. Since April 2011, he is a Five Colleges Associate with Five Colleges, Inc., based at Smith College in Northampton, MA. His research and writing focus on music, currently French, and performances on historic pianos at the Frederick Collection in Ashburnham, MA.