There have been press conferences and a city proclamation, a first pitch at Fenway and an outing to Faneuil Hall. At last it was time for a performance.
Many in the packed Symphony Hall audience rose to their feet on Thursday night to welcome Andris Nelsons, the BSO’s new music director designate, before a single note was played. Looking somehow both awed and poised, he acknowledged the applause with a series of bows. Among other things, this was the sound of collective relief.
For some close BSO watchers, it has felt at times as if this day might never arrive. Over two years had passed without a leader at the orchestra’s helm when Nelsons was finally named in May. The Latvian conductor, who will be the youngest BSO music director in over a century, was supposed to appear this summer at Tanglewood but a concussion suffered in Germany forced him to withdraw from that performance. And so Thursday became his grand introduction before he begins his tenure officially next fall. It was an exciting night, both for the robust music-making that took place but also for the new chapter it represented. This is an orchestra long overdue for some good news.
In musical terms, Nelsons sounded his own arrival not with blazing brass but, perhaps more distinctively, with a chamber orchestra playing one of the most quietly serene of Wagner’s works, the “Siegfried Idyll,” written as a present to the composer’s wife and premiered by an orchestra arrayed on the stairs of his own home, waking Cosima Wagner from sleep on Christmas morning in 1870.
Wagner is a specialty for Nelsons and Thursday’s reading of the “Siegfried Idyll” was remarkable for the care and subtlety with which he shaped its lines and attended to its atmosphere. The BSO strings spun out their phrases with a silvery radiance and the woodwind playing was beautifully pointed. Despite the occasional rustle or cough in the hall, the performance made an impression for the depth and quality of the silence that seemed to surround this music on all sides.
As a whole the evening made no bold statements in repertoire and, at least on paper, was rather subdued in its global tone. Besides the Wagner and a Mozart piano concerto there was Brahms’s Third Symphony, a work in which heroic utterance so often turns in on itself, and melancholy is rarely far.
Fortunately, Nelsons seems to very rarely give a standard performance, even of standard repertoire. His music-making, independent of his particular interpretive choices, tends to project a freshness and a viscerally in-the-moment quality that the BSO players have responded to from their very first meeting with him, in Mahler’s Ninth Symphony at Carnegie Hall. You could feel the chemistry once again on Thursday night, and see it in rehearsal earlier this week.
The Brahms generally came off well too, in an expansive account shaped with big singing lines, bold dynamic contrasts, and small yet articulate details. There were a few moments when Nelsons seemed at risk of losing the forest for the trees, but this performance grew in focus as it progressed. The third movement had a lovely personal quality behind its wistful tug, and in the finale, Nelsons rendered the sotto voce opening full of a hushed intensity, a study in dark coloration, taut and mysterious.
Between the Brahms and Wagner, the Liverpudlian pianist Paul Lewis took on Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25. On these sorts of occasions, it never hurts to have a superb soloist around. His playing was characteristically immaculate, even if at times his brisk tempo choices left less room for the elegance of his technique to shine. Still, it was hard to fathom that a soloist of Lewis’s quality was making his first Symphony Hall appearance. He deserves to be heard here often in the years to come.
Will Nelsons refresh the BSO’s pool of regular soloists during his tenure? This and so many questions — about the nature of his programming, and the details of his role at Tanglewood, chief among them — still remain for another day. But his broader mandate is already clear. The orchestra is in strong technical shape but awaits a galvanizing leader to channel its capacities, to bring a meaningful continuity to its seasons, to help it make more noise in its own city and build its profile both nationally and internationally. Nelsons too, as he winds down a highly successful tenure in Birmingham, England, says he is ready to trim back his punishing schedule of guest conducting and to lay down some new musical roots. This partnership, in other words, promises many things for both sides.
Thursday night was not yet the launch of any new era, but it was a glimpse of one. Another glimpse comes on March 6, when Nelsons will lead a keenly anticipated concert performance of Strauss’s “Salome.” In the meantime it was great to watch the sense of future possibility slowly returning to Symphony Hall. It has been a long time.