Wasn’t it just yesterday you took the mound at Fenway and pumped that ceremonial first pitch into the backstop? Back then, it felt like forever until you would take over as the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s new music director. Somehow, 15 months have passed. Saturday, you’ll walk on stage at Symphony Hall, conduct Wagner and Respighi, and officially become the 15th maestro in BSO history.
It’ll be a big night, with every jamoke with a Vivaldi CD in his Discman vying for your ear. I thought it might be easier if I offered a few nuggets of advice in this letter.
I write this as a lifelong Bostonian, a 12-year veteran of covering the symphony as a reporter, and a guy whom you were kind enough to take on a golf cart joy ride this summer at Tanglewood.
First, a qualifier. I’m far from an authority on how a music director should craft the season’s repertoire. I’ve done some house painting and minor electrical work, but I’ve never built an orchestra. I did learn a lot sitting ringside through the ultimately unrealized tenure of your predecessor, James Levine. As you kick off your relationship with the BSO, I figure there’s no better time to offer my two cents.
Let’s start with the most important issue: me. Or at least the people like me — the media — folks who are going to be asking for interviews in the next few years. Do not change a thing. Your predecessor was one of the least accessible arts leaders in the city, a cross between Howard Hughes and Ned Johnson. He rarely agreed to interviews, lived in a hotel, and made it clear all that mattered was what happened on the stage of Symphony Hall. That seemed admirable, until his physical problems made it impossible for him to take that stage.
In just a short time, Andris, you’ve already shown you’re eager to become more than a 12-week-a-season presence. You and your wife, Kristine Opolais, a star in her own right, plan to rent a place here to raise your young daughter. And you spent several weeks this summer at the BSO’s summer home, Tanglewood, far more than your contract required. I watched as your enthusiasm energized the players, Tanglewood students, and the audience. That attitude of openness is going to go a long way.
Which leads to my second piece of advice: You need to be your own toughest critic. This is not Fenway Park, where World Series heroes (Keith Foulke!) become villains faster than Johnny can flip a Whopper. Symphony administrators, players, and especially audience members are patient, almost to a fault. The honeymoon lasts for years, and even after that the relationship still may not sour.
Maestro Levine, the absentee conductor, would regularly promise he would be back season after season. By the time he stepped down in 2011, Levine was spending more time in rehabilitation than onstage. Only then did anybody begin to grumble.
So revel in the glory of Saturday night. Kiss your beautiful wife, take the kid out for a walk that next morning, and then head back to work.
We know you’re a different beast. You’re young, you’re physical, and you know you have something to prove. You’ve already shown an understanding of the rigors of the gig. Your decision to lose weight over the last year was a great sign.
Your biggest challenge? It might be saying “no” when so many people are asking for your time. You may have to get a handler, somebody who can protect you from overcommitting. You may have to ask some of the nice people who run the BSO to play the baddest of bad cops. Not every symposium needs you at the table. Not every promotional campaign needs your presence. I think back to one moment in June 2013 when the BSO brought you to town on a publicity tour. You were taken to Faneuil Hall to sweat through a short performance with a brass ensemble on a temporary stage. It was, on one hand, charming to see the leader of arguably the world’s greatest orchestra vying for space with a guy on a unicycle and performing for maybe 50 people. But I also wondered whether you were above the task. Somehow, I couldn’t image Koussevitzky up there.
What can you do musically that will innovate the BSO? I’ll let others, with more knowledge, suggest specific contemporary composers and new works. This is, after all, the symphony that premiered works by Copland and Stravinsky. But I’d also urge you to step back and do something none of your predecessors have done: Embrace the Pops. Symphony Hall’s poor stepchild has always been kept an arm’s length from the “serious” BSO. Over time, the Pops has tried to reach out to a younger audience, collaborating with My Morning Jacket, Aimee Mann, and others. But in reality, both the BSO and Pops could benefit from working together.
Imagine a collaboration between the BSO and Sting, a pop star with crossover appeal and somebody you’ve already voiced admiration for. Seek out Pops maestro Keith Lockhart, who is rarely given a chance to play with the big boys.
And, finally, on orchestra building. Levine seemed to take pride in not getting too involved in the audition process. My guess is he simply didn’t have the time, with his gig at the Metropolitan Opera and his health issues. You need to be involved. Jobs don’t often open up at the BSO. When they do, you need to make sure the best musicians in the country are hired.
This all might seem like a lot. So I’ve taken one thing off the table. As much as I admired your golf cart work, let’s not plan a visit to the RMV any time soon. Peppino Natale’s been driving the maestros for more than 30 years. Some things should never change.
Geoff Edgers was, until recently, the Globe’s arts reporter. He now is a national arts reporter for The Washington Post. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.