Clarence Fanto: High hopes for the new BSO director



The selection of a dynamic, still youthful but already widely experienced conductor as the Boston Symphony's next music director has major, positive implications not only for the orchestra but also for its annual summer residency at Tanglewood.

Andris Nelsons, 34, the Latvian-born musician who has made his mark at continental Europe's most prestigious orchestras and at opera houses including the Met in New York, plans to lead the BSO into a new era of audience-friendly programming, as he described his approach in media interviews on Thursday after his appointment was announced.

His goal is to combine repertoire staples with accessible, contemporary works by living composers. For a maestro in the early phase of his career, Nelsons has a deepening command of Brahms, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Ravel and many others, judging from recordings, broadcasts and concerts.

He's immersed in opera and is married to a highly regarded soprano, Kristine Opolais. They often work together; she's among the soloists in the July 27 Tanglewood performance of Verdi's Requiem, a monumental work that tests any conductor's mettle, as well as the vocalists and, at this concert, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

BSO Managing Director Mark Volpe, who has lauded Nelsons for his wide-ranging experience at an early age, indicated that Boston will be his primary affiliation. His contract as music director as of September 2014 specifies that he can be a principal guest conductor at another orchestra, but he won't have a split allegiance, as James Levine had when he tried to divide his time between the BSO and the Metropolitan Opera from 2004 until March 2011, when ill health forced his retirement from the BSO, which had gotten the short end of the stick.

At Tanglewood, Nelsons' role promises to be substantial, Volpe stated, but the number of weeks he will spend here remains uncertain since the conductor currently has an annual residency at the shrine to Richard Wagner, Germany's Bayreuth Festival.

But Volpe predicts that once Nelsons experiences the unique blend of music and the outdoors that Tanglewood offers, as well as the dedication of the 150 young professionals at the orchestra's summer institute for advanced studies, his commitment will deepen, as did Levine's before he was overtaken by accidents and maladies.

Nelsons represents a bright future for classical music at Tanglewood, even as the BSO steps up the diversity of programming by booking more popular-artists events and other attractions during the late June pre-season weeks, a handful of available evenings in July and August, and the Labor Day weekend.

For better or worse, we live in a highly visual age and Tanglewood's high-definition screens offer closeup views for audiences at a distance from the stage. It doesn't hurt that Nelsons is a charismatic presence, with his swooping, sweeping podium technique that may remind some listeners of Leonard Bernstein or Seiji Ozawa.

Volpe emphasizes the visceral energy and chemistry with players that Nelsons already has demonstrated with the BSO and other orchestras. With deepening interpretive skills that accompany even more experience, Nelsons appears to be on the upward escalator of his career. And that's good timing for the Bostonians.

With his year as music director designate beginning this September, a long and fruitful collaboration is the desired outcome, if the stars are properly aligned.

The orchestra's players have remained at the top of their game since Levine's departure. But Nelsons' arrival will inject welcome adrenalin into a 131-year-old Boston cultural institution that can benefit from the revitalization brought by new leadership as it seeks to capture younger audiences and maintain the allegiance of veteran concertgoers.


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