The waiting game is over. The relief is palpable.
After a search that left it leaderless for over two seasons, the Boston Symphony Orchestra opened an exciting and hopeful new chapter in its history yesterday, appointing Andris Nelsons, one of the fastest-rising young conductors in the classical music world, as its next music director.
Nelsons arrives with a reputation, earned mostly in Europe, for a rare combination of youthful dynamism and artistic substance. He will assume the podium of an orchestra in strong technical shape, and primed for a new leader to catalyze its music-making and broaden its reach. There is every reason to hope that Nelsons can be precisely that leader.
In just over two years, Nelsons has led the BSO in concerts at Symphony Hall, Carnegie Hall, and Tanglewood. The orchestra’s search committee, one of its members said shortly after the announcement, was impressed by how he “released” the orchestra’s sound and drew out richly spontaneous performances that also possessed genuine emotional impetus.
That chemistry was notable from Nelsons’s very first Carnegie Hall appearance with the BSO in March 2011, during which he led Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with an immersive musical vision and a visceral physicality. One can always quibble with particular aspects of an interpretation, but Nelsons is clearly an instinctual musician with a keen analytic mind.
The conductor’s own enthusiasm on the podium can also be infectious, and he has earned a reputation for chipping away at the air of reflexive cynicism taken up at times by the rank and file of big orchestras. Hearing these performances made the reputation seem justified. He also left room for the BSO musicians to step forward as interpreters, which they quite audibly did.
As a conductor, Nelsons is a protégé of the estimable Latvian maestro Mariss Jansons, but on the podium, his baton technique comes across as a sui generis creation. He is known to leap, hunch, and swoop as if sculpting the music were a full-body exercise. More importantly, he drew real heat in the performances of Mahler and Brahms I heard at Carnegie and Tanglewood, respectively. The music seemed to move forward as if driven from within.
At 34, Nelsons will be the youngest BSO music director in the last 100 years. And he does not carry himself with the airs of a grand old-world maestro. It will be fascinating to see his chemistry not just with the players, but with the Boston musical public.
His repertoire is uncommonly wide for a conductor his age, but he will be landing in Boston with decades of artistic growth no doubt still in his future. This may be an adjustment for audiences with fond memories of the peaks of the James Levine era, when performances carried a sense of insights accumulated over an entire career.
Clearly the search committee hopes that the air of freshness and musical excitement Nelsons projects will bring new faces to Symphony Hall, and will lead longtime subscribers down some new avenues of exploration. Nelsons’s ears are open to the music of our own time, and in recent seasons he has conducted works by Mark-Anthony Turnage, Marc-André Dalbavie, H.K. Gruber, and Magnus Lindberg. His appointment also has implications well beyond Symphony Hall, as this new marriage between the venerable BSO and the man recently described by the Guardian as “the hottest conducting property in Europe today” seems destined to attract close attention on both the national and international stage.
Nelsons’s previous commitments to his current ensemble — the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, where his contract runs until 2015 — may mean we see less of him during his first Boston season as music director, beginning in the fall of 2014. But there is every reason to hope he will eventually relocate here, a move that would seem essential to this new relationship bearing its fullest fruit. The orchestra and the city deserve a conductor with a real local presence.
Still, it’s worth keeping in mind that even fully engaged, locally resident music directors, these days, are often away for significant swaths of the season. It’s likely that the roster of guest conductors who have anchored recent seasons will continue to return frequently, perhaps with the addition of some newer guests the orchestra has gotten to know during this recent search.
During the summer seasons, it will be fascinating to see how Nelsons becomes involved at Tanglewood while balancing that commitment with his current work at the Bayreuth Festival. Then there is the question of the Tanglewood Music Center, the BSO’s elite summer music academy, where one could imagine him playing a galvanizing role.
All of this is, of course, still in the near but unknowable future. For the moment, many Boston music fans are no doubt simply grateful that this protracted search is over. It did at times feel endless. But ultimately, the BSO deserves credit for making a bold and forward-thinking choice.
The musicians of this great orchestra are capable of following its next leader just about anywhere. Now comes the exciting part: to see where they will go.