The maestro, wearing a black golf shirt and a boyish smile, walked onto the Symphony Hall stage Tuesday morning, spoke briefly of his excitement about arriving in Boston, and said “Let’s start with Brahms.”
The Andris Nelsons era could now begin.
Nelsons, 34, in town to conduct his first concerts with the orchestra since being named the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 15th music director in May, led a rehearsal filled with energy. Over two hours, Nelsons found it hard to sit on the podium stool during a run-through of Brahms’s Symphony No. 3.
He smiled often as he worked through the piece, part of a program to be performed Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, which also includes works by Wagner and Mozart. There was considerable excitement at Symphony Hall before the rehearsal began, as photographers crammed into Nelson’s dressing room and orchestra leaders – including concertmaster Malcolm Lowe, trustee Paul Buttenwieser, and managing director Mark Volpe – stopped by to wish him well.
“Welcome, welcome,” said Buttenwieser, a member of the search committee that selected Nelsons. “Welcome home.”
Nelsons’ five-year BSO contract starts next fall, so he technically was here as just another guest conductor. But the appointment meant that the week would be filled with activities fit only for the new music director. In addition to concerts, Nelsons was scheduled to attend a lunch with BSO players, a dinner hosted by trustees and overseers, and hold a press conference. He posed for his official portrait Tuesday afternoon.
He seemed up to the task, darting between activities fueled only by an ever-present cup of chamomile tea.
The BSO had been eager to hire a young, vibrant music director, particularly after coping for years with former music director James Levine’s health problems, which eventually forced him to resign in 2011. But in July, a freak accident – Nelsons walked into a door late at night – left the new maestro with a concussion and forced him to cancel an appearance at Tanglewood, where he was set to conduct a performance of the Verdi Requiem.
Just last week, Nelsons had to cancel performances in London because of the flu.
Showing his playful sense of humor, Nelsons joked about those ailments repeatedly during his arrival in Boston. Monday night, only a few minutes after being picked up at Logan Airport, Nelsons took a call from artistic administrator Tony Fogg.
How are you? Fogg asked.
Nelsons, in the back seat, pretended to be hoarse, croaking out “I’m very, very sick” before breaking into laughs.
On Tuesday, he offered more than a handful of references to his July concussion and even feigned a back injury as he rose from his chair to head to the rehearsal. When it came time to conduct, though, Nelsons appeared undiminished except for an occasional cough. He focused on the music.
Eager to add a heavier tone to one section of the Brahms, Nelsons leaned over and spoke to a group of violinists.
“This is good for dramatic Rossini,” he said. “Brahms, you need to add the beard.” To demonstrate a quieter, more intimate passage, Nelsons rubbed his upper arm and said, “goosebumps.” He compared other musical moments to rocking a baby and having a toothache. The players responded with chuckles, as if charmed by his approach. They played passionately through the piece, with its lush, richly melodic swirls.
Nelsons conducted with his typical level of physical intensity.
He sang, sometimes almost shouting the notes. When he sat on his stool, it wasn’t to relax but to pivot and contort his body. When standing, he darted toward the players, waving his stick and grunting in time. Nelsons even danced — if not quite as gracefully as one of his favorite pop stars, Michael Jackson, at least with the energy the BSO expects from its new musical leader. His demonstrative approach is a dramatic departure from Levine, whose gestures shrank as his body became broken down.
Nelsons, at one point, put down his stick to demonstrate a Hungarian dance, and flexed his arms in a way more familiar to fans of professional wrestling than followers of Bernard Haitink.
“The excitement was in the air,” said Cathy Basrak, the assistant principal viola, after the rehearsal. “We were aware that this was the start of the new BSO. And he’s such an easy-going guy that it’s so fun to come into his world and work with him.”
“It almost feels a little familiar,” said principal horn James Sommerville during a break. “I’m not blasé about that. It’s not new. That’s what we like about him. That physicality. That intensity. That openness.”
Musically, Basrak noted that Nelsons has a knack for offering a fresh take to even BSO staples. In this first rehearsal, she said, there were moments where she was pleasantly surprised by some of the musical color added to the Brahms.
At the end of first hour of rehearsal, Nelsons chatted in Russian with violinists Vyacheslav Uritsky and Aza Raykhtsaum. He talked with Lowe, in English, about the Brahms. Then he headed off to this dressing room to switch into another shirt, his hair now slick with sweat.
Nelsons wasn’t the only pleasant arrival Tuesday. Malcolm Lowe, who has been recovering from rotator cuff surgery, took the stage as well. Thursday’s concert will bring Andris Razāns, Latvia’s Ambassador to the United States. Former BSO music director Seiji Ozawa, who has been recovering from esophageal cancer, will also be in Boston, though it wasn’t clear whether he would be attending a concert or meeting privately with Nelsons, Volpe said.
The maestro’s family won’t be here. His wife, soprano Kristine Opolais, is in Amsterdam studying with her vocal coach. Daughter, Adriana, 1, is back home in Riga. The family will be reunited next week in Munich, where Opolais will sing with the State Opera.
Nelsons’ first day on the job began around 9:45 Tuesday when he was picked up at his hotel. At his Symphony Hall dressing room, Volpe told him, “You look good.” They chatted about what Nelsons might say when he walks on stage, and then about the music being featured this week.
“The whole program is very sunny and life loving,” Nelsons said. “No big dramas in this.”
As 10:30 approached, Lynn Larsen, the orchestra’s personnel manager, entered the room to welcome Nelsons.
“Just wanted to let you know, everybody’s here,” he said.
Nelsons ducked into his bathroom and switched into a Tanglewood golf shirt.
How was he feeling?
“Nervous,” Nelsons said, adding that this was nothing new. “I’m always nervous. Not before concerts but before rehearsals.”
From backstage, he heard Larsen clap his hands to signal the start time and Volpe introduce him with a simple, “Ladies and gentlemen, Andris Nelsons.”
Nelsons then walked onstage with a mischievous smile, raising his arm over his forehead as if to protect himself from the doorway– one more concussion reference – and then briefly spoke to the players.
“I am extremely excited and extremely honored,” he said. “Music is about humanity and the teamwork is very important. Just enjoy.”
The Brahms came next.