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Heading to Boston, conductor Andris Nelsons on rise

BSO’s new maestro has come a long, long way in a very short time

A few weeks ago, after his image appeared on a giant billboard above the Mass. Pike and before he threw the first pitch at Fenway Park on what the city had officially proclaimed “Andris Nelsons Day,” the 34-year-old Latvian conductor stood in Symphony Hall and looked out at some 850 supporters who had gathered to watch him sign his contract as the next music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

For a moment, the distance, the speed, and the sheer improbability of his journey seemed palpable.

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As a child in Latvia, then still a Soviet republic, Nelsons had read in books about the BSO and learned of its conductors through recordings. His family had lived modestly in a communal apartment without a telephone or television, and even studying English at school had seemed like a dubious enterprise for a boy who suspected he might never meet a native English speaker. Addressing the crowd in Symphony Hall, he said, “I’m really half in a dream now.” And then clarified: “Not half. I’m in a dream.”

For Nelsons, who leads the BSO at Tanglewood this Saturday in Verdi’s monumental Requiem, that dream dates back to age 5, when his parents took him to see Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” at the Latvian National Opera. He was captivated by the music but also, for the first of many times in his life, by the simple paradox of the man in front with the stick: so involved in every bar of the performance and yet not producing a single sound of his own.

Conducting is indeed a curious art, at once physical, intellectual, emotional, and sometimes even mystical. The score holds the blueprint for the music but, unlike a painting hanging in a museum or a novel sitting on your shelf, every performance of a symphony must build the work of art anew. The best interpreters do so with a generative force that in some small way links the nth performance of a piece to the original moment of its creation.

No one can exactly explain the chemistry between a conductor and an orchestra, or why the same musicians can sound so different depending on who is standing in front of them. Some great maestros have governed by fear or fiat. Others have worked like precise master engineers, as if standing at a console with a thousand dials.

Nelsons on the podium takes a different tack, forging alliances with players and projecting his ideas through a striking full-body gestural language that is completely his own. During three recent performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Birmingham, England, he crouched, leaped, and sculpted the music with heftily sweeping horizontal motions. If you blocked your ears, you might have thought you were watching a long-lost tradition of ursine ballet. Open them and you heard the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra meeting him at every turn — and pouring out sheets of nuanced, radiant sound.

The implicit goal of Nelsons’s emotive conducting style is not only to reassemble a Beethoven symphony in each performance but to relive it. “The audience should feel like they have been taken on a journey,” he says, “and like the piece was written yesterday.”

‘Every concert is a joy’

A tall man with an expressive face, Nelsons carries himself in person with an unpretentious air. His work schedule can be punishing, and when he recently met with the Globe in Birmingham for a series of interviews between performances of the Ninth and a recording session, his gaze suggested a pitched battle between his native excitability and waves of sheer exhaustion.

Andris Nelsons, the music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Birmingham, England, (above) won a professional orchestral post at age 18.

NEIL PUGH

Andris Nelsons, the music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Birmingham, England, (above) won a professional orchestral post at age 18.

English is his third language after Latvian and Russian, and he speaks it comfortably if at times giving the impression, burrowing his fingers into his temples while searching for a phrase, that the words at his disposal are vessels too flimsy for the full weight of the message he is trying to get across.

“The Birmingham orchestra has been so great to me from the first moment,” he said one night, shortly after a particularly fiery performance. “Today, to get the music agitated, it took a very different tempo than yesterday. But they are following because they are trusting in me, and I trust that they will understand me — and forgive me if I do something not as well. I really hope we can create that kind of feeling in Boston, to trust each other. Then every concert is different because you improvise or develop. Then every concert is a joy.”

The performances marked the close of Nelsons’s fifth season as director of the CBSO,a regional British orchestra that has been able, as some have put it, to “punch above its weight” thanks to a knack for identifying highly gifted conductors at extremely young ages. The orchestra is still famous for launching the career of the conducting luminary Simon Rattle, whom it hired at age 25 and held on to for almost two decades.

CBSO chief executive Stephen Maddock first heard Nelsons guest-conducting in Munich when he was not much older, and was deeply impressed. He passed around a recording of the performance to his search committee “like samizdat,” he recalled. Another British orchestra was already circling, so the CBSO hastily arranged for Nelsons to lead a private concert in Birmingham billed as an acoustic check of a newly renovated hall. By the first rehearsal break, Maddock was receiving texts from the players suggesting he close the deal. Nelsons was hired to direct the CBSO without a single public performance.

Birmingham residents say that under Nelsons the excitement level around the orchestra harks back to the Rattle era. He is a favorite of the sharp-penned London critics, he has made recordings a priority as well as annual operas in concert, and this past season, the orchestra toured more widely than it has in 30 years.

“There’s a feeling of unity that is so unusual,” Rattle said of Nelsons’ relationship with the CBSO, speaking to filmmaker Astrid Bscher for a documentary about the younger conductor to be released on DVD this fall. “Of course because I know the orchestra so well, I can tell what part I played in the foundation of what he’s doing — and I can also tell how much further he’s taken them, how much freer they are, and what a variety of colors he’s given them.”

The unity Rattle refers to comes across quickly in conversation with CBSO musicians, who speak about Nelsons with an enthusiasm you don’t often encounter from professional orchestral players.

“He believes in your music,” said CBSO principal bassoon Gretha Tuls, “and he just gets so much more out of you than any conductor I’ve ever experienced before.”

Principal bass John Tattersdill concurred: “You can play without reserve with him, you can go absolutely flat out, knowing that you’re safe.”

On the podium, it’s clear that one way Nelsons draws out his players is by leaving them room to step forward. For long stretches in the Beethoven, he showed the beat minimally and instead lavished attention on the phrasing and character of the music.

“There are moments where orchestra can’t do without conductor,” he later said. “And you need to be there when they need you. But you don’t always have to beat” — he pounded the air maniacally as if to underline the point — “because it just flows. If you’re a control freak and you want to control every bar, every phrase, then the players feel out of oxygen. You have to let them play. You have to let them feel free.”

‘Behind the notes’

Latvia sits on a slice of land in the Baltics smaller than the state of Maine, with a bitter modern history of rule by foreign powers. Nelsons of course did not live through most of that history — he was 13 when the Soviet Union collapsed — but he carries aconviction about the centrality of music, not as an extracurricular diversion but as something far more essential, that is deeply rooted in the world from which he came.

Andris Nelsons played trumpet as a child (shown at age 12).

Andris Nelsons played trumpet as a child (shown at age 12).

“I think because in Latvia we were always occupied, never independent, it was these spiritual ways — the arts, and particularly music — with which you could identify yourself the strongest,” he explained. “Music for me has never been an abstract, elite, decorative thing but a part of existence.”

By his own description, Nelsons was a shy and introspective boy. A photograph of him at age 5 captures a gaze so maturely searching it seems incongruous that he is also clutching a toy stuffed animal. He recalls many nights of sitting quietly for hours, just listening as his parents and their friends debated music and philosophy late into the evening.

Nelsons studied piano and voice, later singing in a Renaissance vocal ensemble directed by his mother, but his main instrument was trumpet. He wrestled with nervousness in performance. He also had nascent conducting dreams that dimmed when he realized how many great maestros of the past had achieved their musical results through a dictatorial style he thought foreign to his own temperament. “I thought, ‘Oh it’s not for me, this profession. I can’t be like that.’ ”

Then one day he came across videos of Carlos Kleiber and Mariss Jansons, two conductors of a different ilk; it was a revelation. “I saw this understanding about music,” he recalled, “that it has to do with what is behind the notes. That this is the real music-making, in which you search for the atmosphere and meaning of the music, its fantasy world.”

He began studying with the conductor of the student orchestra in which he played trumpet. When that conductor did not show up one day to rehearse a Beethoven symphony, Nelsons found himself, for reasons he still cannot explain, drifting from the back row of the brass section to stand in front of an orchestra for the first time. He was 16. “Well, guys,” he said to his fellow musicians, “instead of going home, why don’t we just rehearse?” He would conduct.

“From that moment, I was infected,” Nelsons said. “I suddenly felt that I could express myself best in music through conducting. . . . I wasn’t shy or nervous anymore. I didn’t care how I look. I just felt absolutely 100 percent myself as a musician. I can bet it was a terrible rehearsal. But the experience made me really want to continue.”

At 18, straight from high school, Nelsons won a position as a trumpet player in the orchestra of the Latvian National Opera — the very opera he had visited at age 5 — and by 22 he was its music director. In the intervening years he had his first taste of the conductor’s itinerant life, living and working in Riga while studying in St. Petersburg, returning often on the overnight train only to change clothes and report for duty that morning at the opera house.

He finally heard Jansons, whom he revered, conducting in person, when the Oslo Philharmonic visited Riga. But the night did not unfold as expected. Minutes before the concert began, Nelsons was approached by an orchestra manager. The trumpet player from Oslo had fallen sick, could he substitute? He raced home to get his instrument, missing the first half of the concert but making it back in time to play the second trumpet part in Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” under Jansons’s baton.

Backstage afterward, Jansons asked to meet this young substitute and offered to pay him a freelance fee. Nelsons declined, and instead asked permission to simply watch the great maestro rehearse an orchestra. It was the beginning of a close connection that has continued to this day.

From Riga, rising

Until his 20s, Nelsons had never conducted outside Latvia, but that changed quickly as word drifted out from the Baltics about “this fantastic raw talent” in Riga. He was signed to professional management at 24 and began an intense period of guest conducting just about anywhere that would have him, honing his craft with orchestras in places such as Umea, Sweden, and Tampere, Finland, and directing a regional orchestra in Herford, Germany.

His successes brought him further and further up the guest-conducting ladder until there were no rungs left: He now frequently works with the top echelon of European ensembles: the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, and Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.

Orchestral players can be reflexively cynical when a fresh-faced maestro steps before them full of ideas about works they have been performing for longer than the conductor has been alive. For a young conductor in particular, arrogance on the podium is perhaps the cardinal sin. “If you come and start to teach,” Nelsons said, “if you say ‘Sorry ladies and gentlemen, the Brahms sound is like this or that,’ they will just kill you.”

Instead, he approaches new ensembles with what comes naturally to him, an almost childlike excitement about music. But what he often calls his “naïve” approach can also be deceptive, in that it is grounded in countless hours of preparation.

“In my opinion it’s so important that we young conductors learn from the older generations of conductors. The musicians will follow you if they feel you have the depth of understanding the tradition, and this is based on huge study, listening to recordings, analyzing, and reading. They accept your new ideas only if they feel that you know what you are doing differently, and why.”

Boston-bound

BSO artistic administrator Anthony Fogg first heard Nelsons in 2009, when he made his Met debut conducting Puccini’s “Turandot.” Fogg was struck by the “this tremendous vibrancy of sound” Nelsons drew from the pit. His BSO debut came two years later when he substituted on short notice for an ailing James Levine, leading a remarkably vivid performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in Carnegie Hall. In a rare display during the crowd’s applause, the BSO players shuffled their feet in approval.

“I was struck by his willingness to give to the orchestra as much as possible, and to want it to go back and forth,” said BSO concertmaster Malcolm Lowe. Their rapport with Nelsons deepened further at Tanglewood last summer, said Lowe, through a high-octane performance of Brahms’s Symphony No. 2.

Lowe recalled two passages in the Brahms performance where Nelsons surprised him with some spontaneous ideas about phrasing and tempo. With another young conductor in a similar scenario, Lowe said he might feel the need to “balance” against the new idea — in other words, pull back on the reins from the concertmaster’s chair to preserve ensemble unity. But not here. “I felt totally comfortable saying, ‘OK, let’s do it that way. I’ll help you do whatever you want.’ ”

Those moments of trust did not go unnoticed from the podium: “That the orchestra was flexible to me in the Brahms, I was really so very touched by that,” Nelsons said. “It was a very important sign for me that this can work, if I would be so lucky as to receive such an offer.” It came several months later, over a post-concert dinner in May in London.

At the moment Nelsons is so busy between Birmingham and his guest conducting dates with orchestras and opera houses across Europe that it can sometimes be six months between his visits home to the apartment he still keeps in Riga. He is married to the soprano Kristine Opolais, whom he met through the Latvian National Opera. (She will be a vocal soloist at Saturday’s Tanglewood performance.) These days they meet up, along with their 1-year-old daughter Adriana, in the cities where they are performing.

Some of Nelsons’s strongest supporters quietly shake their heads when the topic of his schedule comes up. Even he recognizes the pace as unsustainable. “Now comes a stage where I realize I can’t do all of the things I would love to do,” he said, “all of the orchestras I would love to visit.” Plans, he says, are underway to trim back.

Nelsons’s tenure in Boston officially begins in the fall of 2014, and of course plenty of essential questions remain: how the chemistry with the players will ultimately jell after three long years without a music director, how he will program his concerts, how he will define his role at Tanglewood, both with the BSO but also with the orchestra’s summer academy, the Tanglewood Music Center. Then there is also the question of new music, and which composers he will choose to champion with the orchestra. He has clearly built his reputation through the core Central European repertoire, but has also shown interest in the music of living composers, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Magnus Lindberg among them.

What is clear already is that Nelsons’s appointment has sparked stirrings of optimism in both Birmingham and Boston. Simon Halsey, the CBSO chorus director who also works with the Berlin Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra, has watched the Nelsons era closely, and he offered a generous summary, a challenge, and a qualified prediction for what lies ahead.

“He’s simply one of the handful of best conductors of his generation,” he said. “And it’s now Boston’s job to take him and nurture him, give him the chances, let him develop, be grateful for what he can give already. The great collaborations, after all, are the ones where half of it comes in the other direction, where the players, the management, the city, the community take him on board as well. And if that happens, then he has the talent . . . for it to be one of the most exciting rides in music in the next 10 to 15 years.”

The BSO’s Lowe echoed the sentiment: “I think that it could be a very, very bright time for the orchestra — and I hope that’s the case.”

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com
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