In classical music, as in politics and many other endeavors, every new regime is a reaction to the one before it. When, in 2004, James Levine became music director of the Boston Symphony, he was taking over an orchestra that had been led for 29 years by the colorful Seiji Ozawa. But as Ozawa aged from wunderkind to maestro, the BSO lost its spontaneity, and some observers fretted that its reputation was in jeopardy. Enter Levine, the conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, a certified innovator who, at 60, looked to the BSO as an opportunity to push the artistic envelope. He did, but poor health soon limited his appearances, and furthered the perception that his deeper allegiance was to New York.
Andris Nelsons, the young Latvian conductor who emerged, after a two-year search, as the BSO’s new leader, is the orchestra’s answer to Levine’s health woes and wavering loyalties. At 34, Nelsons will be making his reputation in Boston; he and the BSO will rise or fall together. He has said he will make a home in Boston. If so, the Greater Boston community will be eager to embrace him.
The selection committee, overseen by BSO board chairman Ted Kelly, made good use of its time. The committee was open to a range of conductors, from gray eminences to relative newcomers. But opting for an up-and-coming talent makes solid sense. The fresh enthusiasm brought by Nelsons should win the orchestra many new fans, even if he has a ways to go before reaching the artistic heights of Levine.
For his part, Nelsons could hardly ask for a better launching pad than the BSO. Like the Red Sox, the orchestra draws fans to Symphony Hall and Tanglewood simply for the storied atmosphere and tradition. Unlike the Red Sox, who face daily pressure to win, the BSO is a nurturing environment, with fans open to many forms of fulfillment. Nelsons might well follow Ozawa’s path, riding his charisma to a long tenure; or he could make his mark and move on. Either way, the potential for new excitement is palpable. The BSO and its fans should be energized by their new music director, and he should be energized by the opportunity before him.