Classical Music Commentary: Kapellmeister Nelsons

We’ll have to wait and see how Andris Nelsons balances things out. But there’s no reason to suspect that Boston’s getting the short end of the stick here.

Conductor Andris Nelsons leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra with special guest Richard Goode on piano. Photo: Dominick Reuter.

Conductor Andris Nelsons leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra with special guest Richard Goode on piano. Photo: Dominick Reuter.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Well, that was fast. Not three months after Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) fans breathed a sigh of relief that the Berlin Philharmonic settled on Kirill Petrenko as their new music director, Andris Nelsons, the Orchestra’s charismatic new leader and a prime candidate for that opening, has been named Kapellmeister of the storied Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, as of 2017. There, he replaces Riccardo Chailly, who announced just last week that he would be leaving the post early to better focus on his duties as the principal conductor of La Scala in Milan and as music director of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.

Not surprisingly, this announcement has quickened a few pulses and already began speculation on what Nelsons’ future plans might be. Norman Lebrecht, whose commentary on all things classical music can sometimes border on the hysterical, sees it as a terrible turn of events for the BSO. Alex Ross more or less concurs, if a bit less dramatically. Of course, the comment boards on various websites offer their own varied (and sometimes tangential) readings of the proverbial tealeaves. And, on Twitter, Will Robin suggests his own offbeat solution to all the recent clamor for Nelsons’ services.

So what does this mean? Is it the end of Nelsons’ honeymoon with the BSO and its audience? What might happen, long-term, between Nelsons and the BSO? Most of all, with the memory of James Levine’s failed efforts to dually lead the Metropolitan Opera and the BSO still fresh, are we about to experience déjà vu?

As far as the last goes, probably not and here’s why.

For one, Nelsons is about half Levine’s age when the latter assumed the BSO’s helm. He’s young, energetic, and seemingly in good health. Yes, there will be much on his plate – BSO and Gewandhaus subscription seasons, plus summers split between Tanglewood and Bayreuth, and let’s not forget Nelsons has a young family, too – and we’ll have to wait and see how he balances things out. But there’s no reason to suspect that Boston’s getting the short end of the stick here.

The fact is, with the exceptions of Franz Welser-Möst and Christoph Eschenbach, every music director of a major American orchestra also holds a significant leadership role elsewhere. For better or worse, the era of conductors like Koussevitzky, Szell, and Dohnányi spending the vast majority of their time with one orchestra in one city is over. (Simon Rattle and Mark Elder seem to be the last of that breed.) It’s naïve and irresponsible to expect that a young conductor, in demand across the globe, isn’t going to assume another post, even on another continent. This happens with some frequency and shouldn’t come as a surprise, especially considering that Nelsons hails from (and remains largely based in) Europe.

Let’s also remember that the BSO, who just extended Nelsons’ contract through the 2022 season, knows what it’s getting into. And they’re getting a pretty sweet deal in return. The most intriguing part of Nelsons’ new contract has the BSO and the Gewandhausorchester inaugurating what’s being called the BSO/GWO Alliance, which will involve residencies by each orchestra in the others’ halls, programming that highlights each orchestra’s musical heritage, and various other performing and educational opportunities in both Leipzig and Boston.

Potentially the most enduring element in this scheme is a commissioning program both orchestras are undertaking of new works to be premiered in Boston and Leipzig. The details of this are at present a bit sketchy, but the first composer to be selected is Jörg Widmann, a brilliant young German composer as well as an accomplished clarinetist. He’s a very promising start and, if this program becomes one of the cornerstones of the Alliance and if it lives up to the BSO’s press release billing (that it will feature “an array of international composers representing a diversity of styles and generations”), this could be something about which to really get excited.

As for the BSO’s long-term future with Nelsons, the Leipzig agreement doesn’t necessarily change anything. He’ll only be forty-one when his contracts with both ensembles expires in 2022 and there’s nothing to suggest that he wouldn’t stick around in both places longer. If anything, the arrangement may deliver some significant benefits for Boston audiences. In my retrospective on the Orchestra’s first season under Nelsons’ baton, I wrote that I think it’s now “high time conductor and ensemble have the opportunity to buckle down and spend some extended, quality time together. As in any marriage, they need to let their relationship deepen and mature.” That need for Nelsons and the BSO – and any group he leads, really – remains real. But the appointment in Leipzig should help achieve it.

At least that’s what Nelsons seems to think. In a conversation with the Boston Globe’s Jeremy Eichler, he spoke of how he “want[s] to concentrate and be more focused” in his conducting engagements. Contractually, he’ll be obligated to split somewhere around twenty weeks of each subscription season in Boston and Leipzig, which, presumably, leaves little room for guest conducting jaunts. That should translate into greater artistic stability and also, if he can really engage with both ensembles, an enviable opportunity for artistic growth.

Of course, everything can look good in theory but fall apart in practice. The commissioning aspect of the Alliance notwithstanding, Nelsons’ new contract doesn’t address one of the BSO’s most significant needs, namely for the Orchestra to appoint its own composer-in-residence (or two). But it does help anchor the Orchestra’s peripatetic maestro and, for a while at least, ought to silence speculation about what ensemble he’s going to conduct next. And, of course, there are worse things than the prospect of the Gewandhausorchester setting up shop in Symphony Hall for a week each season.

So congratulations to Nelsons and the Gewandhausorchester. Leipzig gets to share what Boston’s already got: a supremely talented conductor whose gifts, when really tapped, are tremendous. The BSO, too, should be pleased. They don’t get Nelsons’ undivided attention – though that wasn’t going to happen anyway – but they’re getting a clearer picture of what the next seven years ought to look like. Coming on the heels of the Orchestra’s triumphant European tour and as the 2015-16 season is about to begin, that gives the ensemble something it hasn’t had in quite some time: a solid foundation upon which to build the next several seasons. Let’s hope they’re bold ones.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

1 Comment

  1. Jonas on September 10, 2015 at 12:53 pm

    “Norman Lebrecht, whose commentary on all things classical music can sometimes border on the hysterical”

    Sometimes? : )

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