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Upbeat Andris Nelsons leaps into BSO world

Emerging into sunlight from Symphony Hall on Tuesday afternoon, Andris Nelsons assessed his surroundings. Pausing next to an oversize poster of his face, the Latvian conductor grinned impishly while scribbling a mustache across it with an imaginary marker. Looking up, he saw a photograph of himself in action, arms outstretched, on a banner hanging from a light post.

“It could be used for a weight-loss advertisement,” he offered, chuckling.

In fact, the results of a fitness regimen Nelsons adopted after recovering from an injury last year are evident. And Nelsons — newly arrived as the 15th music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra — seemed to know that he was equal to whatever lay ahead, including a black-tie BSO gala that night and the first official concert of his tenure on Saturday.

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A dazzling smile had creased Nelsons’s countenance from the moment that Peppino Natale, longtime driver for BSO maestros, had deposited him outside the stage door, a few minutes before 11 a.m. Tuesday. Nelsons, 35, had flown in the night before from England, where he had just conducted all nine Beethoven symphonies over four evenings to open his final season as music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

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“I feel amazing — I feel honestly like in a dream,” he said, easing into a reception room tucked among the BSO’s business offices. “It’s not only because of the jet lag,” he added, laughing.

Tidy but untucked in dark slacks and a striped shirt, he elaborated. “I’ve been dreaming and thinking how this moment would come, how I would feel,” he said. “It’s now, and it’s amazing. I’m looking forward, of course, to all the plans we have planned so far, and all the plans we will plan, and, at the end, performing great music with a top-class orchestra, sharing with our wonderful audience.”

Plenty remains to be done. Next summer the Tanglewood Music Center turns 75, and big plans are afoot for Nelsons’s three-week residency. Then comes an eight-concert trek through Europe’s capitals next August and September, and other tours are being contemplated. So are new relationships with media and Internet companies: the 21st-century equivalent of signing a record deal.

On Tuesday, Mark Volpe, the BSO’s managing director, said that several companies have expressed an interest in producing recordings by Nelsons and the orchestra. “In addition, we are very interested in beginning a series of self-produced recordings with maestro Nelsons on our BSO Classics label,” Volpe later elaborated by e-mail.

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Becoming better acquainted with worthy American composers is on Nelsons’ agenda. Conversations with Boston universities and conservatories eager for a share of his time are pending. He wants another crack at firing a ball over the plate at Fenway Park, after his first try sailed too high in a ceremonial first pitch last year. And he is still looking for some time to find a home where he will live with his wife, the internationally esteemed soprano Kristine Opolais, and their 2-year-old daughter, Adriana.

BSO music director Andris Nelsons said he’s looking forward to “performing great music.”
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
BSO music director Andris Nelsons said he’s looking forward to “performing great music.”

“He hasn’t been exploring, because we don’t give him that luxury,” Volpe said, laughing. “Every time he’s been in Boston, it’s bam, bam, bam,” he added, clapping his hands for emphasis. “You see some of the public stuff. You don’t see the private — meeting this donor, meeting that one, dinner here, dinner there. And then in periods before performances, we let him rest. People say, what neighborhood does he like best? When he’s here for the month of November, we’re going to get in the car — he doesn’t drive, you know — and show him the South End, Brookline, Back Bay, the waterfront.”

Meanwhile, Nelsons embraced what he termed the privilege of sharing great music with the city.

“It’s all a very fun, enjoyable moment,” Nelsons said. “But this is also, when you think seriously, a very responsible moment, because of course firstly Boston is one of the centers of culture in the United States. To take such a position, it is a very great responsibility, because it reflects taking care of the tradition of the past, taking care of the present, and looking into the future.”

Later that day, having changed into formal wear in anticipation of the gala, the conductor still loosed his inner imp.

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In a backstage corridor he briefly veered off course, diving into a toolbox and extracting a formidable vise grip. “That’s a nice instrument,” he announced playfully.

‘He also brings so much youthfulness, a new outlook, a kind of an enthusiasm and openness.’

Paul Buttenwieser, president, BSO’s board of directors 

That boyish animation surely counts among the assets the BSO hopes will attract the attention of a broader audience. “He’s principally a very, very great conductor,” said Paul Buttenwieser, president of the orchestra’s board of directors. “But he also brings so much youthfulness, a new outlook, a kind of an enthusiasm and openness. And I think that’s going to translate into the music-making, and into the public’s reception.”

Despite English being Nelsons’ fourth language, Buttenwieser said, “I’ve seen him work a crowd like a pro. And he’s also very, very interested in all that’s going on in this city, musically and otherwise.”

That last qualification, which some of Nelsons’ storied predecessors as BSO music director lacked, clearly means a lot to the organization. “It’s what we’ve wanted for a long time, and we really haven’t had it,” said Bill Achtmeyer, chairman of the BSO board. “Even when Seiji [Ozawa] was here, his family was back in Japan. With James [Levine], that was not the case. So we now have a person that will be part of the fabric. He’s a rock star in Europe, and I think he will be a rock star here.”

Tuesday evening, with Symphony Hall awash in the red-and-white hues of the Latvian flag, the gala opened with “To Begin,” a muscular fanfare composed in honor of Nelsons by John Williams. Nelsons spoke briefly, graciously thanking the BSO’s musicians, audience, staff, board, and donors.

Effusively welcoming Nelsons and Opolais, Achtmeyer announced that the event had raised $1.65 million for the BSO’s educational and performance activities. A highlight among the musical offerings was a festive Latvian anthem, performed by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus as a surprise for Nelsons.

Back in the hall for a BSO rehearsal on Wednesday morning, Volpe, Achtmeyer, and Buttenwieser addressed the players, and then Nelsons took the stage to a warm ovation.

Precisely what Nelsons said to the musicians with his back turned to the auditorium is impossible to report with certainty — “amazing” and “privilege” were clearly discernible. The conclusion was unmistakable.

“As they say, speech is silver, but silence is golden,” Nelsons said. “So I don’t want to talk too much. Let’s get started.”

Andris Nelsons.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Andris Nelsons.

Steve Smith can be reached at steven.smith@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nightafternight.