In the bowels of Fenway Park, the two men — superstars in separate spheres — surely did not recognize each other, but that did not preclude the simplest of human exchanges, a friendly piece of advice minutes before game time.
“Don’t even think about it,’’ Luis Tiant, the Red Sox pitching legend, told Andris Nelsons as they stood in the players’ parking lot on a recent evening. “Just get the ball and throw it.’’
The world-famous conductor, the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, smiled and nodded, and then stepped out onto the emerald Fenway lawn. As the gathering crowd cheered, Nelsons threw out the first pitch, albeit too high for even a giant’s strike zone.
“I’m the 17th worst player,’’ Nelsons, 38, said as he sat in the home team’s dugout earlier this month, wearing a Sox jersey adorned with that number, signaling the calendar year, the conclusion of his third season as the leader of the BSO.
But as he stood on the BSO podium May 6, at the end of his final program for the orchestra’s 2016-17 season, the roar from the audience rivaled any provoked by “El Tiante’’ in his heyday 40 years ago in Kenmore Square.
“Each season, I get more and more emotional,’’ Nelsons told an adoring Symphony Hall audience that Saturday night. “We get closer and closer to each other.’’
First, full disclosure: I know as much about classical music as Andris Nelsons, who grew up in then-Soviet dominated Latvia, knows about the infield fly rule. I can’t tell Mozart from Mahler.
But I know beautiful music when I hear it and can recognize that something special is happening under the leadership of the man who became the BSO’s youngest music director in more than a century.
“There’s a magic to it,’’ said Owen Young, a symphony cellist for more than 25 years. “We want to perform for him. We trust him and he trusts us. It’s a good time to be in Boston and a lot of that has to do with Nelsons.’’
Larry Wolfe, the BSO’s assistant principal double bass, said Nelsons has earned and deserves the respect that some conductors reflexively expect.
“He’s made good decisions without hesitation,’’ Wolfe, who’s played with the orchestra for 47 years, told me. “He’s the boss. He’s not a figurehead. He’s changed the sound of the orchestra. He’s one of the best conductors in the world right now. Since he became our boss it may be one of the longest honeymoons in history.’’
That adulation, those accolades, make Nelsons — a boyish, cheerful leader who waves away the pomp that comes with the podium and the baton — uncomfortable.
In his dressing room, or “green room,’’ steps from the BSO stage, he sits in bare feet and an open-neck white Polo shirt and redirects questions about himself to focus on the musicians who work for him.
“I really love them,’’ he said. “They’re my musical family. It’s teamwork. As a conductor, I’m not playing. The orchestra, they are playing and they are such brilliant players. I can influence the energy flow, the tempo, the atmosphere, the passion, but the result is always a miracle. It’s very universal and very mystical.’’
‘I would love to do this for a longer time than 2022. I hope it will continue.’Andris Nelsons, Boston Symphony Orchestra music director, who is under contract until 2022
At the conclusion of recent concerts, as the audience thundered its approval, Nelsons stood aside and recognized his orchestra members and the soloists who performed with them.
“I sometimes want to shake him and say, ‘Andris, go and take a proper bow.’ He’s always there giving the credit to someone else,’’ said Anthony Fogg, the BSO’s artistic administrator. “He’s just very humble. It’s part of his makeup. Sometimes he’s given this stupendous performance and the musicians are all there applauding and you think: Stand up and take one big bow for yourself.’’
He’s certainly earned it.
In 1978, he was born in Riga into a musical family, where his mother recalls him as a preternaturally mature boy – the kind of kid who would listen in silence as the adults around him discussed world affairs. The kind of kid who once asked for a trumpet for his birthday. It would be his instrumental portal to international acclaim.
When his predecessor, James Levine, resigned in 2011 because of declining health, the BSO’s leadership launched a worldwide search for a successor. In the capitals of Europe, there was this buzz about a 30-something conductor. Half Levine’s age, Nelsons had conducted around the world and had been music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra since 2008.
“You knew something was special,’’ Mark Volpe, the BSO’s managing director, said when I chatted with him at his office the other day at Symphony Hall. “The chemistry with him and the orchestra was there right from the get-go. You listen to what he’s doing and you realize it’s human, it’s honest, and it’s incredibly well-informed.’’
And all of this without any of the air or the expectations of deference that often accompany greatness.
“I hate arrogance,’’ Nelsons told me last week.
“He was raised right,’’ Volpe said from box seats behind home plate at Fenway after Nelsons had exited after his errant first pitch.
That’s precisely it. It’s there in the graciousness with which he greets guests after his concerts. It’s there in the relationship he shares with longtime BSO chauffeur and valet, Vincenzo ‘Peppino’ Natale, who shuttles him around town in a sleek, black Cadillac.
“He’s a simple, elegant man,’’ Natale said. “Genuine.’’
And it’s fully there when the conversation shifts from his music to his family. He and his wife, Kristine Opolais, an acclaimed soprano, have a daughter, 5-year-old Adriana.
“I cry much more than I used to,’’ he said. “I miss my daughter. I just see her photo and I can cry. We love her so much. The most important thing is that we have to love our children and let them know that they are loved and they can ask anything and they will always be number one.’’
From the back seat of the Cadillac, Nelsons, the BSO’s 15th music director, munches on a celery stick and carrots. He’s waging a battle of the bulge and has dropped 10 pounds in recent weeks with the help of daily trips to the gym. His daily regimen is monastic. Rehearsal. Recordings. Performances. Exhausting days that stretch deeply into nights.
After a recent performance, the sound of the trumpet from the dressing room could be heard in the nearly empty hallways of Symphony Hall, sound that brought a smile to his friend Tom Rolfs, the BSO’s principal trumpeter.
“The orchestra musically digs in for him,’’ Rolfs said. “Andris just gets this really honest and gutsy and beautiful sound out of the orchestra. He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.’’
Rolfs should know. Two years ago, after the death of Rolfs’s oldest child, he discovered there is something more to Nelsons than a boss or a conductor. “He became my friend,’’ said Rolfs. “He was there for me when we lost our son. He always had time for me.’’
In other words, a guy you want to dig in for.
And you can see that during rehearsal, when musicians in blue jeans and sneakers, sweater vests and hoodies, smile back at a conductor who acknowledges their greatness with smiles, winks, and a quick thumbs-up.
“He’s a nice guy – that’s who he is,’’ Wolfe said. “That counts for a lot. He’s a really even-keeled guy. You don’t get any kind of weird personality flaw. He’s just a dear, dear guy whose heart is in the right place musically.’’
Jim Porter Hamann of Winchester sat in the seats he and his wife have occupied for nearly 30 years as the BSO’s season came to an end on Saturday. “He’s exactly what we need,’’ he told me as the crowd spilled out onto Massachusetts Avenue. “You could spend the entire program just watching him. When we hear Mahler on Saturday night, we don’t feel compelled to go to church on Sunday.’’
Celestial music, he means.
Nelsons is under contract with the BSO until 2022. But the orchestra’s administration and the maestro himself already are looking beyond that.
“I would love to do this for a longer time than 2022,’’ he said from the couch of his dressing room. “I hope it will continue. I can only talk for myself. I have one rule for myself: I don’t want to annoy the orchestra. If there is a time when the orchestra starts to say, ‘We’re fed up with him,’ or ‘Oh, my God, not him again.’ No, I don’t want that.
“In that sense, it’s better to leave early than too late. I hope that stage doesn’t come too early. I hope to prolong that.’’
That’s a hope shared by the orchestra from whom he coaxes beautiful music and the patrons whose applause rang in the conductor’s ears as he left the stage on Saturday night.Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FarragherTom.