Andris Nelsons on stepping back from his whirlwind schedule and preparing for streaming concerts

BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons has been splitting his time between Germany, Latvia, and Switzerland.
BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons has been splitting his time between Germany, Latvia, and Switzerland.Boston Symphony Orchestra

Like everyone else, conductors have been in quarantine of late. Andris Nelsons, the BSO’s music director, has not led a performance here since January, nor has he stepped foot on any podium since March 10, when he led the Vienna Philharmonic on tour in Munich. Since then he has divided his time between Germany (where his wife’s family lives), Latvia (where his family lives), and Switzerland (where he has a home). He’ll have a remote presence as a host for some of this summer’s virtual Tanglewood events, but he is not due back in the US until the start of the orchestra’s fall season, if that takes place at all. In the meantime Nelsons, typically one of the field’s busiest conductors, says he has been Zooming with the orchestra, studying new scores, and taking time to reflect on core musical values. We reached Nelsons by phone In Germany.

You tend to keep a whirlwind schedule during a typical season. What has the closure meant for you?


We’re lucky to at least have our health, and to be able to be together as a family. That’s the priority at the moment. And actually all of this puts in perspective the importance of family, of love, of patience, and of compassion. These values are the most important things.

How have you kept engaged musically during your time away from the podium?

Of course I’ve been missing music so much. I’ve been using this time to explore a lot of very different recordings, listening to CDs, reading and thinking. Sometimes in a very big and fast-flowing life, whether we are in music or any of the arts, I think it’s so important to stop and to think and to dream again. I find that with a lot of scores I’ve been looking at, some things come very freshly and new to me. I’ve also been looking at some scores I haven’t done but am dreaming to do one day, for example, Messiaen’s “Turangalîla-Symphonie.” I’ve always wanted to do this score, and obviously [having been commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky for the BSO] it’s very much a Boston piece.


So having this time to think and to study has been important, but I would say it also [underscores] that music — we need to share it. That’s the only way. It’s an absolute necessity in our lives, and we realize how hungry the inner being is to actually listen to music and to perform. Of course it all sounds very obvious, but I think this situation has somehow, at least for me, [emphasized] this again and again.

This year’s Tanglewood will take place in a very altered format, online, under the assumption that a virtual festival would be better than no festival at all?

I think for one side, of course, nothing can replace live concerts, and if you can’t perform for a full audience, then the mission of our profession is not fulfilled. So we see some organizations closing for a longer period of time. But on the other hand, we need to keep finding ways to communicate to our audiences. We don’t know when we will be able to come back, whether in a half-year, or a year or two years. Instead of canceling Tanglewood absolutely, we’re trying to bring people together. And it’s great to see how much the orchestra has been willing to perform in the chamber music way. There is so much repertoire and so much genius music that we can share, in this time, and it’s possible to do it on a smaller scale.


With the streaming we can be in contact with our audiences to give the perspective that everything sooner or later will be back, and to fulfill at least part of our mission, to say how important the music is, how much we miss it, how much we need it. So it’s a brave step I think the organization has made. And as paradoxical as it sounds, this will bring many new audiences. Through giving the festival experience virtually, we can also reach many people who have never been in Tanglewood. They will be tuning in, and they will have an opportunity to find out about Tanglewood and the BSO. Then I think our great challenge will be to keep them after this epidemic goes away.

Are there any particular streams in the lineup that you’d like to highlight?

There are things I didn’t even know existed! I must say it will be really interesting for myself to see the recent archival and all the older archive material. Everything is important and special. I’m looking very much forward to the streaming of performances by the TMC Orchestra, the student orchestra. Tanglewood is so much about the education and the students, whether through the individual masterclasses or the concerts together. That’s the most memorable feeling, to perform and pass your feeling to the next generation. It’s probably one of the strongest emotional experiences of Tanglewood.


Very personally, when I see myself conducting, or doing other things, I’m hugely disappointed with myself. Watching yourself on the screen is not pleasant at all. I’m probably most embarrassed about my trumpet playing! But it all certainly brings back the memories of those moments. When I look back at these concerts, I see it’s not possible to repeat exactly that thing — how it was thenand that helps me to value each performance even more when we are able to perform. For me, it brings the extreme feeling of how much I miss being there.

How are you approaching the uncertain fall season, which is scheduled to begin with a Beethoven cycle?

The Beethoven cycle was planned before this disastrous situation with the disease, but when looking again now to those symphonies, even for musicians who have played them so many times, I think it will feel so present. Beethoven is one of my closest composers, in terms of the sense of the inner world, the tragedy he lived through, and despite all of it, there is this view of [surmounting] everything that is difficult and challenging in life. These symphonies are always appropriate — but in these circumstances, in these days, I think they will be very uplifting. There are so many different scenarios we can’t predict. But we are strongly wanting to be connected in one way or another, with our audiences, and as an orchestra.


Interview has been condensed and edited.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeremy.eichler@globe.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.