Rambling about Tanglewood: An ambitious undertaking for the BSO Andris Nelsons and BSO will take on 'Das Rheingold' opera

LENOX — To open the Boston Symphony Orchestra's Tanglewood season last weekend, Andris Nelsons conducted one of the symphonic repertoire's biggest roof rattlers: Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony. This Saturday, he takes the BSO and 14 soloists through an even grander roof rattler: Wagner's complete "Das Rheingold," the first of four operas in the "Ring" Cycle.

It's a concert version but that's OK with the music director. He says the lack of staging will be made up for by the Tanglewood setting, akin to the opera's, amid nature, even if the Rhine is nowhere in sight. "Rheingold" is also timely, Nelsons says. The downfall of the gods and the collapse of Valhalla, he said in a interview, are a portent of the fate that awaits modern society in its "obsession" with money and power.

And yet, he added, the gods are also "very human" in their squabbling and fallibility. In this ethos, Wotan, to Nelsons, is "a victim more than a hero." Like others in the opera and among us today, he can't resist the lure of gold.

Nelsons, 38, was relaxed and genial as he stretched his large frame out on a wicker chair in the Highwood Manor House.

"Every year," the native of Latvia said in English that is still sometimes an effort for him, "I experience more and more how unique this place is, and how unique the idea of Koussevitzky [in founding it] was, and how it works. There's nowhere [else] in the world like that."

Managing director Mark Volpe concurs. In a separate interview, Volpe said, "He's thrilled to be here and there's a humility with the guy. He knows he's young relative to other conductors and he knows there's still much to learn." He also realizes the orchestra creates the sound, but "obviously he inspires and he leads."

"Das Rheingold," which clocks in at 2 and a half hours and runs without intermission, is one of the BSO's most ambitious undertakings in the venerable festival's history. The nearest precedents were a series of semi-staged operas that Seiji Ozawa led in the 1980s and James Levine's 2008 performance of Berlioz' "Les Troyens," which he spread over two concerts. "Rheingold" will get five rehearsals, three more than is customary hereabouts.

The German bass-baritone Thomas J. Mayer heads the cast as Wotan. Not well known in the United States, he is nevertheless a leading Wotan in Europe. Nelsons describes him as "a very strong, very colorful character."

This is Nelsons' fourth Tanglewood season as BSO director. He hasn't made it easy for himself. In two-week stints at each end of the eight-week season, he's conducting a total of nine concerts, including an opera gala with his wife, soprano Kristine Opolais, and bass-baritone Bryn Terfel as soloists.

He's also taking part in John Williams' Film Night — he proclaims himself a big Williams fan — and he made his debut as a trumpeter last Sunday in a Tanglewood Music Center brass extravaganza. He thought he'd never return to the trumpet after giving it up 14 years ago, he said, but "it was so sweet and such a surprise" to get trumpeter colleagues' gift of an instrument two years ago that he couldn't resist. It has become like a hobby or yoga for him.

Time to take on the heavy workload was abetted by Nelsons' walkout from the Bayreuth Wagner festival last summer. In his four weeks off this summer, he'll conduct the Vienna Philharmonic twice at Salzburg and take the other three weeks as vacation. When he has a spare hour at Tanglewood, he says, he relaxes by practicing the trumpet or taking a golf cart for a spin around the grounds.

It's been a momentous year all round for Nelsons and the BSO. With his contract extended to 2022, they have launched a broad musical and educational exchange with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, with Nelsons doubling as the German orchestra's conductor. He and the BSO have issued a recording of the complete Brahms symphonies, won a second Grammy for their Shostakovich recorded cycle, and added English composer Thomas Ad s as "artistic partner." He'll conduct the BSO in his own and others' music on July 22.

Opera will remain an essential part of the Tanglewood mix, Nelsons promises. And a completed "Ring" to follow "Rheingold" is a possibility. It might not be expected of Tanglewood, he says, but the idea is "still kind of up in the air."

And as for staying on as BSO leader beyond 2022, that, too, is possible — "if the world still exists," he says. Let the "Ring" be a warning.


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