BOSTON -- First came the welcome: Andris Nelsons and the standing, cheering audience all but blowing kisses back and forth. Then came the concert: Nelsons' concussion-delayed debut as the Boston Symphony Orchestra's next music director.
It was an impressive yet not wholly convincing showing last Thursday, preceded by the hoopla, including a first pitch thrown at Fenway Park, attendant on such occasions. Relief that Nelsons had finally arrived, and hope for a stable, productive new chapter in BSO history after the ill-starred James Levine years, mingled in Symphony Hall's venerable spaces.
The youthful Latvian throws himself into the music, and not just physically. One recurring gesture seemed to epitomize his podium technique and overall approach: left hand gripping the railing behind him for support while right hand, with stabbing baton, urges the troops forward into battle.
He's visceral. He bends phrases and tempos like heated metal.
Or, as the over-the-top title of a new documentary DVD about him has it, he's "Genius on Fire."
It was last summer at Tanglewood that Nelsons was scheduled to make his first appearance as director-designate, conducting the Verdi Requiem. A few days before the date, he banged into a door at his home in Bayreuth, Germany. The concussion kept him there, though he was able to conduct at the Bayreuth Festival.
(Joking about the injury, he pretended to hit his head on a doorway at the first Boston rehearsal.)
The program, chosen before Nelsons' appointment last May -- he actually takes over next September -- was adventurous only in including the least performed of Brahms' symphonies, the Third. Otherwise, there were Wagner's intimate "Siegfried Idyll" and Mozart's grand Piano Concerto No. 25, with the estimable Paul Lewis as soloist.
"Siegfried Idyll," Wagner's birthday gift to his wife Cosima, was played with mar
velous transparency in a chamber-sized orchestra's strings. Nelsons didn't hold back in the Wagnerian climaxes, but the performance enjoyed a hushed intimacy within a broad framework.
The collaboration with Lewis in Mozart's last piano concerto had a kind of Orpheus-and-the-Furies quality.
Lewis -- memorable from his Schubert recital last summer at Tanglewood -- was nimble and elegant, seeming to pack a happy surprise into each phrase, beginning with the very first one. The BSO under Nelsons took on an almost martial grandeur amid Mozart's trumpet and timpani flourishes. Rather than contradict, the two approaches complemented each other.
The Brahms Third, like Nelsons' 2012 Brahms Second at Tanglewood, felt pressured, with pouncing attacks. Beneath the intricate surfaces of this compact work lie undercurrents of darkness, doubt and melancholy. Nelsons seemed so intent on getting at the drama -- there was plenty of that - that the music came to seem airless.
At times during the evening, minor errors in entrances by various players suggested that conductor and orchestra were still getting used to each other. There were to be two repeats of the program, and fixes were possible.
Nelsons, who originally trained as a trumpeter, made his BSO debut in 2011 as a substitute for Levine. He has spent most of his career in Europe, most recently as director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England, a position he'll give up in 2015 to devote more time to Boston.
Many aspects of his BSO tenure, such as programming and the place of new music, remain to be worked out. His immediate role at Tanglewood will be partly clarified next month when the BSO announces the 2014 summer schedule. He is down for four concerts over two weekends, including one program with the student Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. Beyond that, nothing is known.
At 34, Nelsons joins a move to young music directors, exemplified by Gustavo Dudamel in Los Angeles, Alan Gilbert in New York and Yannick Nezet-Seguin in Philadelphia. Longevity and growth are part of the deal. Also central is an implicit invitation to younger audiences, typically involving more new music to keep up with the times. Nelsons' career, however, has been focused on the core repertoire from Mozart to Wagner and Mahler.
The new documentary, produced by Astrid Bscher and distributed on the Orfeo label, shows Nelsons discussing, rehearsing and conducting standard repertoire with a variety of European orchestras and, briefly, the New York Philharmonic. The jumpy film is more respectful than revealing, but it contains a few nuggets of surprise.
Would you guess that, despite his frequent orchestra-hopping, Nelsons is afraid of flying? That he studied Tae Kwon Do to learn discipline? That he married soprano Kristine Opolais on the spur of the moment shortly before a concert, thus -- unbeknownst to them -- sharing a 2011 wedding date with Prince William and Kate Middleton? (The Nelsons couple has a daughter, Adriana.)
An encore for the maestro: On Friday, Nelsons got to meet his predecessor Seiji Ozawa, who was in Boston from Japan for medical treatments and to see his beloved Red Sox play. Ozawa gave the newcomer a Red Sox cap. Long life to both.