Boston Symphony and Andris Nelsons: The Reviews

By Brian McCreath

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Mar. 20

Ever since the announcement of James Levine's resignation from his position as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (which you can read and hear about via our BSO broadcast producer Brian Bell's interview with Mark Volpe, Managing Director of the BSO, and segments on both the Emily Rooney Show and the Callie Crossley Show), one of the names that's popped up consistently as a potential successor to Levine is that of Andris Nelsons.

I'm pretty sure his name would be on most observers' short lists no matter what, based on reviews and impressions of his work as conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England. But the BSO fanned those flames substantially by engaging the 32-year-old Latvian to replace Levine for the BSO's Carnegie Hall performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony on March 17.

And here are a few impressions from that concert:

Jeremy Eichler of the Boston Globe wrote that, "he scored a triumph on Thursday night in his BSO debut ... And in what is high praise from this orchestra, the BSO musicians stayed seated during one of Nelsons’s bows and joined the crowd in applauding him, shuffling feet vigorously." Eichler described his presence on the podium as "youthful but unflashy, leading with a podium technique that is far from conventional," which led to an "organic quality of the music-making, a sense of deep and thoughtful immersion in the musical moment at hand" and "some of the strongest playing of the season."

Overall, Eichler saw and heard "the full partnering of conductor and ensemble in the creation of a vibrant performance." Read the full review at the Boston Globe.

Meanwhile, at the New York Times, James Oestreich heard something quite different from the Nelsons/BSO combo. According to him, Nelsons "did not have [the BSO] sounding its best. It wasn’t so much a question of wrong notes or rhythms and the like, though there were those. It was more a matter of blatancy and imbalance." Calling the performance "muscular" (and that's not meant as praise in this work), he went on to say that, "Almost everything was at least a notch too loud, and almost everything surged to the foreground. Textures were cluttered. Accompanimental figures often seemed italicized."

It wasn't completely unsuccessful, as "Mr. Nelsons persuasively stressed the humor in the scherzo and the wildness in the Rondo-Burleske." But clearly Oestreich is not yet convinced that this relationship need be explored further. Full review (plus impressions of the concert conducted by Roberto Abbado, available at the New York Times.

Finally, a blog I only became aware of because of this concert, thousandfold echo, says that Oestreich's perceptions were accurate, but that rather than consider them a negative, the attention to detail is actually a positive: "Some approach Mahler’s intricate counterpoint by thinning out and clarifying the textures; Nelsons and the BSO took a more satisfying approach of endowing the inner voices with soloistic color and phrasing. Yet this attention to phrasing never broke up the line or descended to fussy point-making; it all seemed natural."

And the writer, Michael, noticed the same reaction of the players after the performance concluded: "When he came out for the second curtain call, the orchestra refused to rise, and sat there applauding him, until he took a solo bow. By this time the audience was on its feet."

That last point may turn out to be vitally important. Part of the reason Levine came to the BSO in the first place was the enthusiasm of the players for his work. And major orchestras like the BSO can be downright cranky when they're not on board with a conductor. So if there really is the enthusiasm from the musicians as described in two of these three reviews, BSO management will, in my opinion, be very wise in considering another opportunity to bring in Andris Nelsons for a series of concerts.

I can say, by the way, that Andris Nelsons is a name I thought of, too, when Levine's departure was announced. In the series of concert performances I program for the radio each Wednesday afternoon at 2pm, there have been a couple conducted by him, and my memory of these one-time-use recordings is that they were stellar. I'm intending to do a bit more digging around to see whether we might be able to secure a few more of his concert performances to offer on the air. Stay tuned, as they say.

And if you have more to add about Nelsons or other potential BSO conductors, just pop your thoughts into a comment below.



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