Adding a major European post to his conducting portfolio, Andris Nelsons will assume the music directorship of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. He takes up the prestigious position in the fall of 2017, and will hold it simultaneously with his position as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where his terms of commitment remain unchanged.
“It is a great responsibility and a great excitement,” Nelsons said by phone from Berlin, just after concluding his first European tour with the BSO.
Along with news of the appointment, the Gewandhaus Orchestra and the BSO have also unveiled plans to embark on a rare cooperative alliance, which will involve joint commissions, musician exchanges, educational opportunities, and programming initiatives designed to spotlight each orchestra’s history and the common ties between them.
The partnership will be launched informally in May, when the BSO performs in the Gewandhaus as part of its next European tour. In addition to co-commissions (the first of which will go to German composer Jörg Widmann), both orchestras will explore each other’s musical heritage through a “Leipzig Week in Boston” and a “Boston Week in Leipzig.” The partnership’s educational dimensions will include opportunities for conducting fellows at the Tanglewood Music Center to serve as assistant conductors to Nelsons in Leipzig. The Harvard scholar Christoph Wolff has been appointed as artistic adviser to the new alliance.
The new position as the Gewandhaus’s “Kapellmeister” will place Nelsons at the helm of one of Germany’s oldest and most distinguished orchestras. It will also, he says, allow him to streamline his European conducting commitments, which, now that he has concluded his tenure at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, are numerous and widespread.
“As a young conductor it’s great to do much guest conducting, and it’s been so wonderful, but I feel now I really want to concentrate and be more focused,” Nelsons said. “And now the American focus, and the European focus is very clear. Instead of going all around, I can be more organized on both continents.”
According to the BSO, many of Nelsons’s responsibilities at the Gewandhaus will be clustered in periods when he would not otherwise be active in Boston, including September, May, and December, months in which the orchestra is either off or engaged in the Boston Pops season. Nelsons’s initial Leipzig contract will be for five years, and will include touring and recording as well as eight subscription weeks of concerts per season — four fewer than the 12 subscription weeks specified in his Boston contract, which was recently extended until 2022.
“What’s been clear in all my conversations with Andris is that he had all these incredible relationships but they were really scattered, and he wanted, and felt the need on a variety of levels, to consolidate his European activity,” said BSO managing director Mark Volpe, also speaking by phone from Berlin. “There are a lot of conductors who have an American and a European orchestra [separately] — but he didn’t want to just do that. He wanted them to be in a real relationship. And I don’t know of another partnership or alliance like this one. For us, it will be a very important new relationship.”
In forging the new partnership, the Boston and Leipzig orchestras will be building on historical commonalities that have long connected the two ensembles. The BSO’s first conductor, Georg Henschel, was educated in Leipzig, as were several other maestros in the BSO’s early history, among them Max Fiedler and Karl Muck. The Hungarian conductor Arthur Nikisch held directorships at both orchestras. And BSO music director Charles Munch was the Gewandhaus Orchestra’s concertmaster from 1926 to 1933.
The very design of Symphony Hall was also partly inspired by the second Gewandhaus building — the Leipzig ensemble’s home between 1884 and 1944, at which point the hall was destroyed by allied bombing during the Second World War. The orchestra’s destiny in later decades of the 20th century was largely steered by Kurt Masur, who presided on its podium for 26 years, and famously provided civic leadership during some of East Germany’s most tumultuous final hours.
Most recently, the Italian conductor Riccardo Chailly has brought new luster to the Leipzig orchestra. But Chailly announced last week that he would be stepping down from his post at the end of the 2015-16 season, four years earlier than anticipated.
Nelsons’s appointment will put at least a temporary halt to the near-constant industry speculation about the future of his European career, after months of rumors that the conductor might be destined for major posts in Berlin, Amsterdam, or Lucerne.
With few details of the 2017-18 season known at present, only time will tell what ripple effects the new position will have in Boston, and how large a role the new partnership will play in the BSO’s artistic planning. For his part, in his comments by phone, Nelsons sought to make clear that the Leipzig post would not diminish the nature of his local commitment. On the contrary, he insisted, his schedule would be much simpler with one musical home on each side of the Atlantic.
“Nothing is reduced because of this decision,” he said. “And I would never take such a responsibility if I would not be absolutely sure that I would be emotionally or physically [prepared]. I have no worries, and assure that the concentration, the time, and the emotionality is all there. And linking the two orchestras in an alliance is so exciting. We are thinking of many, many interesting projects and programs.” He added, “With Boston, Tanglewood, and the Gewandhaus, the possibility is huge.”