On a recent afternoon at Tanglewood, Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Andris Nelsons stood on the podium, waving his arms in motions so large he might have been landing an airplane on the stage of the Koussevitzky Music Shed. The next moment, as an orchestra of young musicians played on, Nelsons leaned forward into the sound, sculpting the music with surpassing tenderness.
At another point that day, he could be seen plucking individual eighth notes out of the air with two fingers and flicking them over his shoulder like errant fireflies. A small audience of rehearsal observers looked on, mesmerized.
Is any job in music — any job anywhere — as shrouded in mystery, reverence, and misunderstanding as that of the orchestral conductor?
And has any local maestro since the balletic early days of Seiji Ozawa sparked as much curiosity about the elusive art of conducting as Nelsons, the BSO’s young leader who wraps up his first season next weekend at Tanglewood?
The symbolism of the conductor’s power, as Elias Canetti noted long ago, begins with his being the lone musician standing before the enchanted masses seated on both sides of the footlights — the public and the players.
He — and yes, it’s still most often a he — channels the music’s profundities and surface delights. He brings word from the distant dead. His appointment is often likened to that of a pope. He has been described as the tamer of a dragon with 100 heads.
At the same time, the whole cult of the maestro can be catnip for skeptics. How important can he be if he’s the only one onstage making no sound at all? And if he’s so essential, why can orchestras sometimes play without a conductor, or — as with the Boston Pops — under the batons of such, er, unconventional maestros as Ray Romano, Shaquille O’Neal, and Big Bird?
As young conductors go, Nelsons is one of the more interesting to watch, thanks in part to his singularly animated style — all that leaning, leaping, and soaring over the thermals of the orchestra. And Nelsons, in his first season, clearly has revitalized an ensemble that had been leaderless for more than three years. The orchestra recently extended his contract through 2022.
So how does Nelsons approach this enigmatic art? To the critic’s chagrin, much of the truly significant work of conducting transpires in domains that lie outside the reach of language; talking about it can feel as futile as describing the flight path of a butterfly.
But after observing Nelsons on the podium, and hearing him speak about the peculiar task of limning the sublime with a slender piece of wood and cork, one begins to grasp three elements that distinguish his approach.
It is a sui generis, full-body language of gesture through which he conveys his own insights into, and identification with, the music’s character; a striving for performances that may not be the final word on a score, but which nonetheless pulse with life; and a sense of unguarded exuberance and sincerity that, when trying to win the engagement of jaded professionals, may be his secret weapon.
“Obviously, every orchestra musician expects, as your first task, for you to be there with your technique where it’s needed,” Nelsons said in a recent interview at Tanglewood’s Highwood Manor House. “But they also expect this other combination of things, which at the end, is your personality.”
In communicating with an orchestra, all conductors rely on basic beat patterns understood by any player, but those patterns can look vastly different depending on who is holding the baton. Nelsons’ more fanciful gestures, for example, are often linked to specific expressive shadings and effects he is calling for.
What’s more, the proportion of his podium display that is devoted to showing the character of the music – instead of merely marking the tempo — is much higher than with many other conductors.
This is part of what makes him transfixing to watch, as those dramatic gestures broadcast his intentions so vividly to musicians and the audience alike. But this aspect of his style can cut both ways: Some listeners may find it distracts them, turning an aural experience into a visual spectacle, and some musicians may prefer a more pared-down approach.
Nelsons seems aware of the tension. In conversation he cited Herbert von Karajan’s famous injunction not to “disturb” the music. And in certain recent podium outings, he seemed to be attempting to use his physicality more judiciously.
“It’s something I’m trying to analyze,” said Nelsons, “because you want to help [with big gestures] but firstly it doesn’t always help, and secondly it’s not always necessary. But in certain moments, [small gestures] would not sufficiently inspire.”
Whether dialed up or down, Nelsons’ demonstrative style is very much his own, at the same time as it bears influences from his mentor, Mariss Jansons, and sits comfortably in the wake of Leonard Bernstein’s famously visceral approach. It is also in tune with how people increasingly relate to concerts today — that is, as musical literacy has declined in the general public, audiences tend to listen more and more with their eyes.
One might even say that James Levine, Nelsons’ predecessor at the BSO who favored a minimalist approach, was tagged by some as a cerebral conductor precisely because he refused to cater to this hunger for visual podium display, just as Nelsons’ embrace of the physical aspects of his craft has burnished his populist appeal. But neither conductor’s artistry deserves to be reduced in this way.
Rehearsals can be revealing. At Tanglewood, Nelsons was working with the orchestra on a movement from Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, and paused after a certain passage. The lower strings, which were supposed to be providing a crucial sonic underpinning for the rest of the orchestra, were being overpowered by other sections, to the point that the ensemble coherence was fraying.
Nelsons requested they try the passage again, but this time he would not conduct. The other sections of the orchestra, he said, should allow the cellos and basses to “conduct” them — essentially, to steer the ship from below. He ran the passage, and, without lifting his baton, the ensemble problem was fixed instantly. Work of this nature reinforces the orchestra’s own internal circuitry, and is nothing short of essential.
In rehearsal, Nelsons is careful to avoid too much talking — a pet peeve for many orchestral players — but most of his comments focused on sharpening the characterization of individual musical moments.
At one point in the Shostakovich, he sought a more angst-ridden quality in a series of woodwind chords. In another bleakly beautiful passage for the strings, he was seeking a more inner-directed glow to the sound — as if, he told the orchestra, “we don’t dare to think there might still be hope.”
The fruit of this kind of detailed work is everywhere apparent in the BSO’s newly released recording of the same symphony. The music’s gripping drama is revealed through the clarity of each detail and its placement at the service of narrative expression. Every moment speaks.
Although it is all we usually see, only a very small portion of a conductor’s work takes place while he is standing before the public in the moment of performance. Conducting any score can require countless hours of private study. Then comes the day of the first rehearsal, and the age-old question of how one draws out the best from an ensemble. According to orchestral lore, the players can size up a new conductor in less than five minutes of watching him work.
Nelsons is keenly aware of this dynamic. “You can’t fool the musicians,” he said. “They immediately see whether you are prepared. They also see whether you are pretending, whether you are fake, [meaning that] you want to use the music to express your importance as a person, or whether you are being honest.”
The goals of honesty, sincerity, and emotional authenticity surface often in Nelsons’ comments on conducting, and they offer a clue to his singular mind set.
Commanding, veteran maestros with roots in an earlier era don’t typically speak in these terms — perhaps because it would seem to undermine their lofty authority, anchored as it often is in the players’ perception of their vast experience and deep knowledge of the repertoire.
Nelsons has no such aura preceding him, nor does he cultivate one. While studying conducting, he worked as a trumpet player in the orchestra of the Latvian National Opera. He is younger than many players in the BSO, and he is not infrequently in the position of having to lead a work that he has performed fewer times than a good portion of the musicians in front of him.
Nelsons seems to sidestep this potential dilemma by declining to play the role of the omniscient grand maestro, choosing instead to present himself as a decisive yet fallible cocreator, conducting not from on high but from deep within the music’s flow.
“I’m sure many people in the orchestra might say, ‘I don’t agree with the interpretation,’” he said. “But they might also say, he has respect for us and he’s honestly putting out what he thinks. So they can then decide to accept or not, to follow or not, but at least they don’t feel forced.”
Here, one begins perhaps to glimpse why Nelsons has a reputation in the orchestral world for eliciting participatory, committed music-making wherever he goes. Investment by the players is requested but not assumed, leaving a space for active choice. From an audience’s perspective, this can make the difference between a night in which expert professionals solemnly illustrate a distant masterwork, and an evening in which the music smolders with the heat of a genuine event.
“You can’t fool the audience,” Nelsons said. “They are not professional musicians, but they have a feeling, too, about whether there is something going on there or whether they feel bored — even if they can’t explain why.”
Many conductors work into their 80s, their interpretations deepening by the decade. For Nelsons, at 36, achieving profundity for the ages does not appear to be the explicit goal. Rather, he wants not just premieres but also every Beethoven or Brahms symphony — whose over-familiarity can often work against any sense of discovery on stage or in the audience — to carry the jolt of a first performance.
As one might expect, in Nelsons’ first season, certain interpretations were more compelling than others. There were memorable nights of Gubaidulina, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, and more, as well as less fully persuasive outings with, for instance, music of Mahler and Stravinsky.
But what never flagged during his invigorating year of local performances was the vital, in-the-moment focus of the music-making. The frequent goal, it seems, to borrow a phrase from the late violinist Isaac Stern, is to show not how a particular score should be played, but why.