New Boston Symphony Music Director Andris Nelsons: 'It's Not A Job — It's Life'

Sep 26, 2014
Originally published on September 26, 2014 7:23 pm

Andris Nelsons is a bear of a man. The 35-year-old Latvian conductor, who will become the Boston Symphony Orchestra's youngest music director in more than a century, is over 6 feet tall, and when he stands on the podium, he moves.

"Through conducting," Nelsons says, "you express through your arms, through your face and even the body, what you want to tell, so the musicians of the orchestra understand."

In July, when Nelsons made his first appearance as music director designate at Tanglewood, the summer home of the BSO, the musicians understood.

Elizabeth Rowe, principal flutist of the BSO, says that above all, Nelsons is "an incredibly enthusiastic musician."

"His love for the music is so palpable," Rowe says. "And there's a tremendous sincerity to what he brings that is really — it's fresh and it's very inspiring."

The BSO auditioned a number of conductors after its most recent director, James Levine, stepped down because of health issues. But Nelsons proved to be the unanimous choice of both the musicians and the board, says managing director Mark Volpe.

"This guy," Volpe says, "the music's kind of oozing out of not just his hands, but his whole body."

Nelsons was born into a musical family in Riga, Latvia, when it was part of the Soviet Union. He was just 17 when he started playing trumpet in the opera house, and eventually he became its music director. From there, Nelsons' career in Europe has exploded. He's conducted the Berlin and Vienna philharmonics at the Bayreuth Festival and leads the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England. Now, Boston. It's quite a resume for a 35-year-old.

"It came very early and I'm still very young, for conductor," Nelsons says. "But still, I'm very happy that it's been fast, but gradual opportunities."

Volpe says much of Nelsons' appeal comes from his openhearted approach to music-making.

"It's almost a spiritual dimension that he brings," Volpe says. "And he is a fairly spiritual guy. There's virtually no cynicism."

It's a privilege to be a musician, Nelsons says: "Music is something so mystical, so unexplainably a thing you cannot put in the rules or boundaries, you know? It speaks about our feelings about questions of life and death. It goes absolutely beyond any kind of rules."

Since Levine's departure, it has been an uncertain three years for one of America's oldest and most respected ensembles. Malcolm Lowe, the Boston Symphony's concertmaster for the past 30 years, says it's exciting to have somebody like Nelsons at the helm.

"It's one of those times that you can really honestly say that there's something very natural and very organic about what happens with him," Lowe says. "Both as a human being and musically, which is really great for us."

Boston Globe music critic Jeremy Eichler has been impressed by what he's seen and heard of Nelsons, but he has questions about how much influence the young conductor can have on the BSO, when he's only in town for about 10 weeks this season.

"It's clear that he can lead exciting concerts with the Boston Symphony, but what exactly will be his appetite to actually drive institutional change?" Eichler asks. "To not just be the first conductor, you know, among equals, but to actually be a cultural leader in Boston. And, institutionally, to kind of grapple with these bigger questions of where the orchestra should go, how it can be renewing its mission, you know, what it means to be an orchestra in the 21st century."

For Nelsons, the most important mission of being a conductor is to make a human connection, with his orchestra and with his audience.

"It is much more than profession and a job," Nelsons says. "It's not a job. It's life. And we musicians can influence, and are responsible to influence, human hearts when we perform. We have to touch them."

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is one of America's oldest, most respected ensembles. But its most recent music director, the legendary James Levine, had to step down because of health issues, and a succession of guest conductors followed. But that's about to change. Tomorrow evening, a 35-year-old Latvian conductor will become the youngest music director of the BSO in over a century. Jeff Lunden has this introduction.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRAL MUSIC)

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Andris Nelsons is a bear of a man - over six feet tall. And when he stands on the podium, he moves.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRAL MUSIC)

ANDRIS NELSONS: Conducting - you express through your arms, through your face and even the body what you want to tell, so that musicians of the orchestra understand.

LUNDEN: And this July, when Nelsons made his first appearance as music director designate at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the musicians understood.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRAL MUSIC)

ELIZABETH ROWE: First and foremost, he's an incredibly enthusiastic musician.

LUNDEN: Elizabeth Rowe is principal flutist of the BSO.

ROWE: His love for the music is so palpable, and there's a tremendous sincerity to what he brings that is really - it's fresh, and it's very inspiring.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRAL MUSIC)

LUNDEN: The BSO auditioned a number of conductors after James Levine stepped down. But Andris Nelsons proved to the unanimous choice of both the musicians and the board, says managing director, Mark Volpe.

MARK VOLPE: This guy - the music's kind of oozing out of not just his hands, but his whole body.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRAL MUSIC)

LUNDEN: Andris Nelsons was born into a musical family in Riga, Latvia, when it was part of the Soviet Union. He was just 17 when he started playing trumpet in the opera house and eventually became the music director there. Nelsons' career in Europe has exploded. He's conducted the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics at the Bayreuth Festival and leads the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England - and now Boston.

NELSONS: It came very early, and I'm still very young for a conductor. But still, I'm very happy that it's been fast, but gradual opportunities.

LUNDEN: Mark Volpe says, much of Nelson's appeal comes from his open-hearted approach to music-making.

VOLPE: It's almost a spiritual dimension that he brings, and he is a fairly spiritual guy. There's virtually no cynicism.

NELSONS: Music is something so mystical, so unexplainably - it's a thing you cannot put in the rules or boundaries. You know, it speaks about our feelings, about questions of life and death. It goes absolutely beyond any kind of rules.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRAL MUSIC)

LUNDEN: The orchestra's musicians agree they've been adrift for the past three years and have had to pull together themselves. So Malcolm Lowe, the Boston Symphony's concert master for the past thirty years, says, it's exciting to have somebody like Nelsons at the helm.

MALCOLM LOWE: It's one of those times that you can really honestly say that there's something very natural and very organic about what happens with him, both as a human and musically, which is really great for us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRAL MUSIC)

LUNDEN: Boston music critic Jeremy Eichler has been impressed by what he's seen and heard of Nelsons. But he has questions about how much influence the young conductor can have on the BSO when he's only in town for about 10 weeks this season.

JEREMY EICHLER: It's clear that he can lead exciting concerts with the Boston Symphony. But what exactly will be his appetite to actually drive institutional change - to kind of grapple with these bigger questions of where the orchestra should go, how it can be renewing its mission, you know, what it means to be an orchestra in the 21st century?

LUNDEN: For Andris Nelsons, the most important mission of being a conductor is to make a human connection with his orchestra and with his audience.

NELSONS: It is much more than profession and a job. It's life, and we musicians can influence and are responsible to influence human hearts when they perform. We have to touch them.

LUNDEN: His journey with the Boston Symphony Orchestra begins tonight. For NPR News, I'm Jeff London.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRAL MUSIC)

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And we have a bittersweet goodbye today, the last day our program will be produced by Matt Martinez. For more than three years now, Matt has pulled together and shaped all our stories, deciding what you'll hear and how. It's a job for someone with a rare mix of judgment, unflappability, creativity and great ears. Matt has got them all. He's not leaving NPR, but he is leaving us, and we will miss him so much. From all of us, Matt, huge thanks. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.