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Andris Nelsons excited about extension with Boston Symphony

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Andris Nelsons’s tenure has helped the orchestra raise its profile farther from home.

By Globe Staff 

LENOX — After a promising start, both parties are ready for more.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra and its current music director, Andris Nelsons, are now planning for at least three more years of music-making together. On Monday, the orchestra announced it has extended its contract with Nelsons through the 2021-2022 season. The contract, which had previously run until 2019, also includes an evergreen provision allowing Nelsons and the orchestra to add additional years.

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“For me, it’s amazing, it’s fantastic,” Nelsons said last week at Tanglewood. “When you start a new position, there is always excitement . . . but you can’t predict how things will go. This first year, we’ve gotten closer and closer, and it’s great that we can now look forward to 2022. And we can do real long-term planning and dig deep in the relationship.”

The timing of the news, which arrives before Nelsons has completed even a single season in his position, suggests an early vote of confidence from both parties. The conductor has been seen as having energized the BSO’s local audiences and restored momentum for the orchestra after several years of drift without a music director. Nelsons’ tenure also has helped the orchestra raise its profile farther from home, through a planned return to regular international touring; a new recording and distribution relationship with Google Play Music; and a new multiyear five-disc recording project with the classical label Deutsche Grammophon, centered on the symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich.

“It was clear this year that there was a very special chemistry developing with the orchestra and with the audience,” BSO managing director Mark Volpe said. “And we very much wanted to solidify and, frankly, to capture the moment.”

The extension will also be read in the context of the heated speculation about Nelsons’ possible future with other orchestras, speculation that seems to follow him everywhere he goes. Before the young Latvian conductor even began his first year in Boston, his name was circulating in the press and on social media as a possible candidate for the directorship of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and, more recently, the Berlin Philharmonic. Both groups have since named other leaders, but nevertheless, Volpe said, Nelsons “wanted to cut that [kind of speculation] off.”

The new contract replaces the initial five-year contract with an eight-year agreement. It calls for Nelsons to conduct a minimum of 12 subscription weeks per season and two weekends at Tanglewood. It also extends plans for regular touring and should at least hypothetically make possible the completion of the full cycle of the Shostakovich symphonies with Deutsche Grammophon, a goal that both the recording company and Nelsons had articulated before the project began. (The first of its initial five discs, devoted to the composer’s Tenth Symphony, was released last week.)

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“Of course before starting, I was hoping there would be a continuation after 2018-19,” Nelsons said. “But you can never tell. It’s the musical chemistry but also the human chemistry as well. It needs to match . . . . But I felt immediately that we understand each other, and respect each other. [The first season] has been so confirming . . . . If you have only a few years, it’s not enough at all. And of course, hopefully 2022 will also not be final.”

The tenure of Nelsons’ predecessor, James Levine, was cut short by medical problems that led to his resignation after seven years. Before Levine, Seiji Ozawa was at the orchestra’s helm for 29 years, the longest directorship in its history.

Determining the optimum length of any conductor’s tenure can be an art in itself. The relationship must be given enough time to deepen and bear its fullest artistic fruit, but if a conductor stays too long, the orchestra’s morale and the freshness of the music-making can suffer. At the most basic level, the current extension should allow Nelsons, the BSO, and its audiences to set aside distracting chatter about possible exit dates and continue the day-to-day work of building a partnership that is still new.

It’s also, clearly, a partnership in which the BSO has now deepened its investment and its faith. “I think the collective feeling here, that [Nelsons] shares, is that we’re poised on the threshold of something quite special,” Volpe said. “And now we have to realize it.”


Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.
Follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.