LENOX — Andris Nelsons settles behind the wheel of a golf cart, pressing the accelerator with his right foot. “I’m not that fast,” he says with a grin.
The future music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra slows down a bit as he approaches a group of teenagers walking down a Tanglewood pathway, but he can’t help but chuckle as they dart out of his way.
There are serious matters to deal with here — a planning meeting for a performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony next summer, concert rehearsals — but first, the maestro plays the merry prankster. He squeezes in a joyride.
“This is like having a toy,” says Nelsons, 35, who never learned to drive in his native Latvia.
Since he arrived at the BSO’s summer campus on July 7 for a two-week stretch, Nelsons’s enthusiasm has been infectious, observers say, and vital after years of uncertainty under his predecessor, James Levine.
“He’s wonderful, he’s spontaneous, and he’s got a great love for music,” said violinist Sheila Fiekowsky, who joined the BSO in 1975. “We knew he was the whole package, and he’s clearly ready to commit himself.”
That’s no small thing at the BSO, which had been searching for a leader since Levine, the gifted but physically ailing music director, announced he would step down in 2011. Nelsons was hired last year; his five-year contract begins this fall.
Nelsons wasn’t required to spend so much time at Tanglewood this summer. But he wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s kept up an ambitious schedule here: meeting with staffers to plan future programs, coaching the Tanglewood Music Center fellows studying at the prestigious academy, conducting a question-and-answer session with donors, and sitting for 11 interviews with journalists, including ones from as far away as Japan and Germany.
“He’s not acting like a guest,” said Mark Volpe, the BSO’s managing director. “He’s the music director designate. But let’s not kid ourselves. He’s the music director.”
On a humid day this week, Nelsons, in an untucked blue paisley shirt, jumped into the golf cart to shuffle from a radio interview to a photo shoot to a meeting across campus about the Mahler program. He took his first ride last week when, on a whim, he co-opted the cart from a BSO staffer assigned to escort him to an appointment. He’s now hooked.
In an interview, Nelsons said that his time at Tanglewood has been eye-opening. He has never been somewhere that balances serious music with the atmosphere of a vacation getaway.
“It’s such an amazing place,” he said “Firstly, it’s an amazing quality of music making. And it’s a combination of great fun. It’s very rare you can get this combination of fun, relaxation, and also great artistic quality.”
Observers are encouraged by how quickly Nelsons has immersed himself. They’ve noted both his serious attention to detail — during the Mahler planning meeting on Monday, he pressed to increase the number of double-basses scheduled for next summer’s performance from seven to 10 — to the personal approach he brings to the podium.
“He’s hilarious,” said Nathan Varga, a 25-year-old bassist in the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. “He’s super down-to-earth, and understands what we need and what he needs to do in order to do what he’s thinking.”
Levine was also deeply engaged in Tanglewood, working closely with the fellows and conducting programs, until his various physical problems forced him to stay home. He last appeared on the Tanglewood stage in 2009.
Nelsons’s arrival was also delayed. Last summer, he was scheduled to make his first triumphant appearance since being named music director. But a freak accident — he walked into a door — left him in Germany recovering from a concussion.
That injury kept him off his feet for weeks. During that time, Nelsons says, he gained weight because of the inactivity and his mother’s pancakes. Topping out at 260 pounds on his 6-foot-1½-inch frame, Nelsons realized he needed to get into better shape. He’s cut out bread and sweets, done more work in the gym, and shed 30 pounds. It’s important to stay in shape, he says, with his challenging schedule and physically demanding approach to conducting.
During a rehearsal with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra last week, Nelsons used the stool on the podium as a launching point. He swirled with the music, darted to the right and left, and jumped into the air at dramatic moments. This was not for show: Attendees at Saturday’s BSO performance saw him barely bend a finger in the early passages of Ravel’s “Bolero.” But when the music demands it, Nelsons shakes his fist furiously, stabs his conducting baton toward the strings, and leaps like a guitar hero punctuating a final bar chord.
This is all in stark contrast to Levine, whose final years with the BSO were spent conducting from a chair.
Nelsons also has an unusual way of communicating with musicians. During rehearsal, he illustrated sections of the music by imitating the pecking of a chicken and the surge one might feel when sticking a finger into an electrical socket.
Several of the young musicians said Nelsons changed the way they thought of a Strauss waltz when he described the difference between pouring honey slowly out of a bucket rather than dumping it quickly.
“Most conductors wouldn’t dare to make analogies,” said Karina Canellakis, a conducting fellow who has worked with such renowned conductors as England’s Sir Simon Rattle and BSO conductor emeritus Bernard Haitink. “I think if you do that, it has to be very natural and something that comes to you. I don’t think he plans that he will say this. I think it comes into his head, he says it, the orchestra listens, and the next time they play it, it comes out different.”
Since his arrival, Nelsons has soaked in Tanglewood’s history, a history he’s now part of. On Monday, Volpe put a photograph of Nelsons on his office wall, alongside pictures of conductors Leonard Bernstein, John Williams, Seiji Ozawa, and Keith Lockhart. The BSO managing director also walked Nelsons down to the gardens to see the bust of Aaron Copland, the famous composer who was on Tanglewood’s staff for a quarter-century.
On Saturday night, Nelsons ate a peach backstage after the BSO’s performance. He was soaked in sweat and chose to chat backstage rather than go outside to watch the fireworks. “I hate fireworks,” he said, then laughed as he mocked being peppered with gunshots as a loud blast rang into the night.
At the evening’s post-concert gala party, Nelsons posed with board members and donors and made a brief speech thanking his supporters. He was toasted and presented with three silver roses, a reference to a gift for a character in Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” — a piece he’d conducted parts of that night.
“I always want to be here as much as I can,” said Nelsons, who will increase his time in Tanglewood next summer before heading to Europe in late August for a BSO tour. “This is my orchestra. This is my musical family.”
Malcolm Lowe, the BSO’s concertmaster and a member of the search committee that selected Nelsons, said he already can feel a difference in the way Nelsons approaches that family.
“I think the realization in him of what’s about to happen is taking effect now,” Lowe said. “I thought his approach was definitely more ownership — realizing he is the music director, will be the music director, and to take his right, so to speak, of asking and demanding things and going the direction he believes we should go in.”
On Saturday night, Lowe was involved in one of Nelsons’s only missteps. It was a minor one, but revealed a lot about his character, Lowe explained. That night, Lowe was one of several BSO musicians to solo during Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances.” Nelsons absent-mindedly forgot to ask him to stand for a bow, as is customary.
That’s not the first time a musician has been snubbed, however innocently. And Lowe knew it wasn’t personal. But after the next piece, “Bolero,” during which Lowe did not take a solo, Nelsons urged him repeatedly to take a bow.
Lowe declined, several times, then finally rose and reached out to Nelsons with a smile.
“You can sum up the kind of person he is by that,” he said. “There’s a positiveness about his being that’s irresistible. When you first meet him you think, ‘OK,’ that’s what’s happening now, but what about later?’ Then you work with him and realize that love of music and that spirit is what he will always draw on and keep alive. And that gives us such hope and a positive feel about what will happen.”