Andris Nelsons talks about music, life. Complete transcript of Aug. 2016 interview
The sound of trumpet scales should have given him away. Walking up toward the press porch at Tanglewood, you could hear some trumpeter was warming up the embouchure with easy scales. Not an unusual Tanglewood sound. But of course this was Andris Nelsons—long ago a trumpeter, and now the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra—relaxing on a late summer day with his old instrument.
We sat for an hour-and-a-half in the press porch, unhurried by travel schedules or rehearsal commitments or celebrity photo shoots. Nelsons, barefoot, sitting cross-legged in a wicker chair, opened up about his family life—for him “family” extends outward to include his musical compatriots—about “Der Rosenkavalier,” pianists, Bach, Gewandhaus, teaching and even religion. Here’s what he said.
It’s a great pleasure to speak with you. Thank you.
Let’s talk about the season first. You’ve been doing a lot of large scale vocal works (Nelsons had just led the BSO in Acts I and II of “Aida”). “Der Rosenkavalier” (coming up on week two of the subscription season) isn’t done that often on the concert stage.
I personally don’t try to divide between opera and symphony music—it seems like unnecessary categories, saying that one is apart from another. Generally it’s about music, in opera and in the symphony, and what music is talking about. What happens when we die, what happens in life. The search by composers is equal in genres.
The big differences are the chorus, and those specific moments. But it’s very useful for an opera orchestra to perform the symphonic repertory, and for a symphony orchestra to perform the opera repertory regularly in opera concertante. The orchestra gets to freshen up some feelings, and it gains sensitivity by listening to singers, feeling the balance. If we achieve that big chamber music feeling, that’s important.
The listening is important, and the balance. The text is very important in opera of course, but the colors and harmonies are equally important. I think it’s all a puzzle. There’s moments where the soprano is shining, and moments when the bass is shining, and moments when the harp is the most important.
And the same with symphony music. I try to approach the drama and the story in opera like I do in a Brahms symphony. I don’t get to tell the story in a literal sense when I prepare the piece, but it has this association with drama. Or Beethoven, Mahler, Haydn—of course Strauss is obvious. When we can perform opera concertante it develops and fulfills and widens the symphony.
“Rosenkavalier” is an amazing piece in concert—not often heard. We have a wonderful cast. For “Rosenkavalier” you need an extremely great orchestra, to bring out the colors and brilliance.
From now on it’s my intention to do opera concertante every season, and at Tanglewood. It’s not that I miss opera conducting, and that I’m compensating. I do want to do more, because the elements of music making are all the same. I hope the orchestra is fond of it, and our wonderful audience can see and hear opera.
Balances are always trickier in concertante, compared to an orchestra being in the pit.
Balances are inherent in opera performance, not in symphonic performances. Of course there are many challenges leading in the pit. I think that’s another great thing about his orchestra, transferring the feeling you get playing concertos to opera.
You can’t do the same thinking as in the symphony, in terms of volume and dynamic. It’s more complex. Of course it’s always complex. Forte in Brahms is not the same as forte in Haydn. When you know forte means you are supporting the chorus, and then there’s forte in character that’s almost pianissimo in sound—you’re talking about forte in intensity. All these just develop in the feeling of music making. It doesn’t happen automatically.
It been important to me to create this sensitivity, and understanding of each other. A chamber music sensitive to the big explosions and the soft intimate moments. Opera gives a lot of these qualities. In the end, it’s trust, doing opera with the orchestra.
I have done “Rosenkavalier” with Birmingham. Of course “Salome” and “Elektra” can work more easily onstage, but after that Birmingham experience I am convinced that it really works. We have big singers, a great cast. I’m looking forward to it.
Let’s talk about some more programs for the fall.
The Brahms cycle next season I’m really excited about. (The BSO performs all four symphonies, both piano concertos, and “A German Requiem.”) It’s a Brahms cycle in a very short period of time. We continue the Shostakovich cycle, with the biggest and most powerful—the Seventh. And we’re pairing it with the Gubaidulina piece—American premiere. We continue the Shostakovich recording cycle—we’re doing the Sixth too. Anne-Sophie Mutter plays Tchaikovsky and Takemitsu in that concert.
We have a lot of pianists—it’s like a parade of great pianists. Starting with Lang Lang, Hélène Grimaud, Fima, Uchida, Radu Lupu, Ax, Gerstein, Leif.
We’re doing the B minor Mass in December. I’m thrilled to do Bach and touch that amazing genius. I’ve always been afraid of conducting Bach. I’ve played trumpet in the B minor, and I’ve sung solo in the B minor as well. But I’ve never conducted it. I’ve been afraid to.
The music of Bach is so timeless, so fulfilling. You don’t feel that you need to be in front of it. The music has everything in there. You have to find the balance when you conduct. You support, but you don’t have to give too much of your individuality. It’s Bach. It’s dangerous to be in the way.
Another reason is there have been different periods, Romantic, Stokowski, Gardner, Harnoncourt—those master of the period instruments. Every way is interesting. All these ways can be valid. I personally want to conduct Bach despite not having the opportunity to use period instrument because you immediately find a connection. It doesn’t matter what century the music is composed in, the music is always expressing something. Our feelings, beliefs, our doubts, our anger. The human condition. It’s doesn’t matter if it’s Baroque or Renaissance or modern. The essence is the connection to the human heart, or the human brain.
Bach is a genius mathematical mind. You think of Einstein. It’s hard, but it’s genius and perfect music. For me using modern instruments is not a limitation, you’re not loosing the essence of the music. You want to express this Mass through our hearts and our feelings. I’m being brave maybe, but we want to perform it the way we see the world today.
And to do it in Symphony Hall, with the amazing acoustic. And work with the chorus, singing Bach. The more opportunities I get to work with the chorus the better.
And we’re also singing the Mozart “Requiem,” and Mahler Fourth, and we go to Carnegie. And we always have wonderful guest conductors—some who are coming for the first time.
Let’s talk a little about how the programming comes together.
It’s probably the same with each institution. We have in Boston an amazing team with Mark (Volpe) and Tony (Fogg). We come together to discuss, look at the context of what we have to do. Like last year with the Shakespeare celebration. What anniversaries, what the orchestra has not played, or would need to play. Also the guest conductors and the guest artists and also the audience. Then we build a season. For us, it’s taking care of the great tradition of one of the oldest orchestras.
I’m always excited about performing contemporary music. We’re performing Widmann, and for the Brahms cycle we commissioned two composers. I have the first score from Eric Nathan, just a few days ago. And also the George Benjamin piece we are taking to Carnegie. It’s always in our interest to be openminded about contemporary music and make it a part.
But I love conducting “Symphonie Fantastique” as well, hearing the orchestra play French music. Continuing the Germanic line.
In the long term we are looking forward to the commissioning partnership with Gewandhaus. We have a couple composers already, but I can’t say right now who they are. And now we have Thomas Adès starting his artistic relationship with us, conducting, composing, playing piano, staying here and teaching, being part of Tanglewood as well.
If we can shift gears, it’s heartening to see the orchestra and the institutions so energized. The James Levine appointment had so much promise—especially for people like me, I think—but that just didn’t work out.
I get energy from this amazing orchestra. Talking to them, and with the very warm and interested audience, the supporters, and Tanglewood, which is unique, I feel this huge link to the future.
We have this cliché idea really, this feeling that even the top American orchestras—Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia—that they are not too old. But Boston is 137 now, and basically Concertgebouw is about 125 years old. Gewandhaus, and Dresden Staatskapelle, and Berlin are older—and of course Copenhagen is the oldest—but Boston is one of the oldest and most amazing in the world.
Jimmie Levine is a wonderful genius, and a genius conductor. I’m thankful for what he’s done with the orchestra. It’s so unfortunate that health created all the problems.
For me health is the most important—health, and family. We have Adriana (his 4 year old daughter). And you know my wife is an opera singer, traveling all over. She left yesterday. My daughter goes with her mostly, with the exception of some time in Riga, in Latvia. But like last year Kristine spent 3 months at the Met, and when she goes there and I’m in Boston we can go back and forth and see each other.
It’s exciting and challenging. But it’s possible to plan, and stay healthy, that’s the most important.
When I was young it was all music. I don’t think so now. Health and family and your values come first, and then you can understand music that much better.
I really feel that this institution is one family, and you have to take care of it and respect it, to intensively work at it and feel responsibility.
I know now we are talking very strange. But if you stay in your room and study all the time—well, the most important thing we do is what we do onstage, and if you don’t lead a life you don’t know what life is about.
I think deep down when I review something that I’m really just talking about how the music communicates.
It’s communication exactly, isn’t it? It’s a language. A conductor’s profession is so much about communication. Firstly, with your own feelings. What you feel. When you prepare your head and your brain and your heart, and you communicate that with your own body, and then through the orchestra.
It takes a strong discipline and trust, and I think then it comes over to the audience.
As performers we have this great opportunity to take these genius pieces to the audience. To do that we need to communicate them well. They are the geniuses, we are just the communicators—in the right way, subjectively.
Let’s talk a little about Gewandhaus.
Of course it starts in 2017, a year and a half from now. I’m the designate now.
These are two independent and great institutions, with their own history. And it stays that way. It’s not that the sound of Gewandhaus or the tradition of Boston will somehow globalize. That’s not possible, and I wouldn’t want to do that anyway.
They come together so naturally, historically. I started in Boston, and we have longterm plans. Then came this Leipzig offer, and I came to the Boston team, to Mary and Tony, in a friendly way, like ‘Look, there is this possibility.’ Remember Nikisch was conductor of both, and the old Gewandhaus, that was destroyed—Symphony Hall is a copy of that.
There is a strong Germanic link to Boston, and also strong cultural ties. In the sense that they are both cultural centers. Boston is a very deep tradition, intellectually strong, and Leipzig is the intellectual center of classical music as well.
Already the first year consists of co-commissions. Several composers, I just can’t say yet. And we will have Leipzig week in Boston and Boston week in Leipzig—playing the repertoire of Leipzig in Boston, or playing American composers or those composers associated with Boston in Leipzig.
And education, particularly with conducting fellows from Leipzig coming here and also from Tanglewood going there. Christoph Wolff is very excited about this, and he is helping with the historical aspect and the planning. He has amazing knowledge, and he knows how great the connections already are.
Last year when we were on tour we went to Leipzig, and I think the musicians already connected. They went on a biking tour for one thing—a close friendship is already beginning. You know, we see so much happening with technology but unfortunately it does not lead to friendship or collaboration. But we can see it in music.
For me it means concentration on Boston, and from 2018 on concentrating on Leipzig as well. Digging deep and collaborating. Hugely reducing guest conducting; down to one week in Berlin, and one week in Vienna. And occasionally an opera.
Now I’m more free than I was before. I want to look deeper, and I’m interested to see how it develops, this kind of feeling.
It’s good to see different orchestras of course. I had Riga, and Herford, and Birmingham. Now I want to calm down. You can reach a deeper understanding about music, but you can do it better when you build a relationship with your orchestra longterm. And you need that time to invest, in order to build something together.
It’s nice to guest conduct. I’m almost 40 now. So doing something like the Brahms cycle—you always find something that new. It’s up to the individual. I won’t say you understand Bruckner when you’re 80 but maybe you do. If your mental health lets you stay aware of things. It’s a very sensitive kind of question, but obviously I realize being a conductor that’s too young is not a good idea. Taking on something you don’t understand, that you can’t fulfill. But it’s very individual.
When I start both orchestras I’ll be 40. It’s young for a conductor maybe, but I don’t think when you’re 60 you can do both. Then it’s time to concentrate on your grandchildren. I think sometimes about the mystery of Sibelius, about why he didn’t compose for so long at the end of his life.
I’m a christian, and I believe you shouldn’t plan. We should give while we can if you want to share the message of the composers. It gives good thing to humanity. A sense of ethics, either religious, or just the human ideas of compassion or sacrifice. Nobody can tell how long. If we all knew we could live 80 or 90 years, I would assume I would know much more. But what if my mental health goes when I’m 60? I think it’s important to dig deep.
Before we go we should talk about the recordings.
What is the future of recordings? I think that the quality side of it, the seriousness and the deep investment—maybe it’s risky. But this is a serious project, and I think that there will always be a need for recording. Maybe it’s reduced, but we have a responsibility to the future, and to the past.
I’m very thankful for the BSO and DG investing and taking this journey. And Gewandhaus with Bruckner, and Vienna with Beethoven. It’s a sign that Shostakovich’s music is still important to us nowadays, and so important that we need to record all the symphonies. We can say that Bruckner is not dead, and has something to say to young people. Beethoven is maybe more obvious in a way.
That such a big label takes a serious interest, not only in 5 and 10—‘Let’s do the most popular of everything’—but the full cycle, that makes a complete journey of a genius composer. It was a difficult time, and it reflects in a way what happens in the world now. In a sense you can find some parallels in the world from when he lived. It’s so great that there is an interest in the complete works. It doesn’t necessarily earn much for the company or the musicians, but it’s important to understand, and to leave something for the next generation.
There are of course already great recordings, and in a hundred years there will be more. It’s the same with Bruckner. I want to look at that music again, and to try to say subjectively what I can say, and respect that tradition. Bruckner’s life is interesting and complicated, and I want to share the feelings that he wanted to share.
It’s a great honor and a privilege to show the seriousness of things, the way I see it. The 21st century has its way of communicating, and I don’t know how that will change. Of course there are downloads—I think in Japan still they like to collect the CDs. I know I do, ever since I was a kid I collected. I’ve got about 5,000 CDs—I collected whenever I could.
It shows you that if you only do the popular way, then you certainly don’t show the seriousness to the future. I think somehow we communicate the same way when we do a great piece from the past, or a great piece of contemporary music. I have this feeling that if we don’t then who else would take care of it—because there is a need.
I should let you get back to your trumpet scales.
One thing before. We’re at Tanglewood right now, and the importance of Tanglewood is huge. I will be involved as much as I can every summer (from the podium the next night Nelsons announcement his expanded summer commitment, which includes two weeks at the beginning of the Tanglewood season, and two weeks at the end).
With the TMC orchestra, and the opera projects, and the BSO of course. I’ve never taught—I’m still looking for teachers for myself. But I have so many thoughts and ideas about how to be involved more.
I don’t want my presence to be a problem—we have so many great guest conductors. But there’s a balance between me in the planning part, and me conducting.
We invite the best quality artists and teachers, and if I can be encouraging to some more people, and be involved in the teaching process as music director. As music director your task is not only to be the best musician, but to take care of what happens when you’re not here. To attract the best. And this is an absolutely unique place. To see the Boston Symphony musicians here in this great atmosphere, in this human atmosphere, where you can live a normal life and still participate in great music. It’s our task to keep the quality, and sustain that.
Now I think I’ll do some more practice, then do the golf cart for a while.
Interview with Andris Nelsons, in the press porch at Tanglewood on Aug. 22, 2016. Portions of this interview have been used in feature stories for both the GateHouse Media newspapers and for WBUR’s ARTery. The exchange is lightly edited.
Copyright Keith Powers 2016. Kindly give credit if you use material.