It had been a full 3½ years since the Boston Symphony Orchestra last performed with a music director of its own. Finally, as of Saturday night, it has a new one.
Before a packed and expectant Symphony Hall, the 35-year-old Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons, looking humbled yet poised, stepped onto the podium of the BSO and gave the downbeat as its 15th music director, the youngest in over a century, and only the second in its history (after Serge Koussevitzky) to come of age under the cultural influence of Russia.
The crowd’s enthusiasm seemed, to put it mildly, in no way dampened by the wait. Television cameras from PBS swooped on long booms. Music critics from national media outlets came to Boston for the night. The Nelsons love spilled onto the Twittersphere, and WCRB’s live Internet stream of the performance was heard in Europe, where the conductor has until now built his career. Indeed his tenure at the BSO has just begun, but he already has the ears of the music world far beyond Boston. What will he be giving us to hear?
On Saturday night, the answer was a festive gala program made up of operatic excerpts, with two topflight singers, tenor Jonas Kaufmann and soprano Kristine Opolais (Nelsons’s wife), lending their own star wattage to the occasion.
As a program-builder, Nelsons seems to fall into the impressionistic school, choosing clusters of works not with the goal per se of summoning larger themes, ideas, or stories but because they strike him as simply working well together. In this case, the night opened with the overture to Wagner’s “Tannhaüser,” continued with opera excerpts from Wagner, Mascagni, and Puccini, and was capped by Respighi’s gaudily spectacular orchestral showpiece, the “Pines of Rome.”
On this occasion, Nelsons’s “Tannhäuser” was spacious in its sound world, if at times slightly static in its pacing. Winds and brasses for long stretches emitted a kind of lidded glow. For his part, Kaufmann was in superb voice, beginning with “In Fernem Land” from Act III of Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” surely the most entrancing six minutes of the evening. He floated the opening pages as one part reverie, one part incantation, with Nelsons spinning silken threads of orchestral sound around his distant tenor. Wagner’s music through this passage builds in firmness and weight as it approaches the revelation of Lohengrin’s secret, and then recedes again toward immateriality. Before a shout of “Bravo!” interrupted, Nelsons had cast a deep spell, the final seconds of music drifting off as if into the clear night sky.
After intermission, Kaufmann returned with a heated and shapely account of “Mamma, Quel Vino è Generoso” from Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana.” The Prelude and Liebestod from “Tristan und Isolde” came between the two. This was a young man’s “Tristan” Prelude, light on the weltschmerz but still paced at an effective slow-burn. The “Liebestod” was a curious choice for Opolais’s lighter voice, and while attractive colors came through, the work did not play to her formidable strengths. Nelsons also deployed a lot of energy on the podium trying to keep the orchestra’s sound from swamping the vocal line.
Opolais fared better in a deeply felt account of “Un bel dì” from “Madama Butterfly,” delivering a glimpse of one of her signature roles that made you wish to hear more. She also teamed up with Kaufmann for “Tu, tu Amore? Tu?” from Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut,” and the pair showed real chemistry, even in a concert performance. The two capped their section of the program with a tenderly sung encore, “O Soave Fanciulla” from “La Bohème.”
That left Nelsons alone on the podium to bring the night home by means of Respighi’s potboiler, which he did with a richly atmospheric account, full of subtle details in its scene painting. In the moonlit Janiculum movement, William Hudgins’s clarinet solos lent a transporting glow. Respighi of course gives the brass the final triumphant word, and at Saturday’s close Nelsons did not stint on decibels, with trumpet players fanning the orchestral blaze from the balconies.
So what now? How about a bit of context. The best conductors continue deepening their craft into their 70s or even 80s. At 35, Nelsons will not try to play the guru, going to the mountain and bringing back the tablets of Mahler. His most important gift at this point may be his ability to serve as a catalyst, to inspire freshly energetic playing from an orchestra, and to convey a sense that a performance is not another event on a high-culture assembly line but rather an act of spontaneous creation capable of delivering the jolt of the real.
Nelsons’s youth, his immersive podium style, and his fundamental openness will help the orchestra reach new audiences. Yet for this new era to reach its full potential, he will also need to add to this mix a boldness of artistic and institutional vision commensurate with his willingness to take risks onstage.
Saturday’s opener already shows that he begins here with an enormous reservoir of good will, most crucially from the players themselves. All parties should think big. Nelsons — in demand throughout Europe — should embrace this new chapter of his career, pare back his dizzying schedule, establish a home in the city, and prioritize this great orchestra. If he can do all of that, it is quite clear: The future of this partnership should be very bright indeed.