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Q&A

At Tanglewood, Boston Symphony Orchestra Music Director Andris Nelsons embraces a commitment to new music

Conductor stands in front of an orchestra

BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons says the Berkshires is "almost like a paradise, and I feel the same way as I did the first time [in 2012]."

LENOX — Andris Nelsons, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s music director since the 2014-15 season, always eagerly anticipates his return to a month in the country at Tanglewood. This summer, he’s conducting nine BSO concerts and two more with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra of students attending the BSO’s renowned summer academy.

This is the first season programmed under the leadership of Gail Samuel, president and CEO and the first woman to lead the BSO in its 141-year history, who began her tenure in June 2021.

Music by living composers — 28 of them, including several women and composers of color — reflects a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion that many arts organizations are adopting.

Eight world and American premieres are featured, and three women are on the BSO’s podium, including the orchestra’s Assistant Conductor Anna Rakitina as well as guest conductors Karina Canellakis and JoAnn Falletta.

Another innovation well-received by audiences: Spoken introductions by composers of new music.

Editor's note: The Eagle caught up with Nelsons backstage recently. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How have you experienced the challenge of preparing new contemporary works?

A: I’ve been listening to a lot of new music and studying new scores, commissioned by us or co-commissioned with other orchestras. I’ve enjoyed this, and it’s just the beginning of widening the repertoire and being open to these wonderful opportunities for new pieces with the BSO. We have three women composers, we’ve started this journey of exploring a wide range of diverse backgrounds, and it’s very interesting and exciting music. At the same time, we want to keep the great geniuses of the past alive and present. Somehow, my thought is to contrast, for example, contemporary pieces with Beethoven piano concertos. In his time, he was revolutionary, now his music has lived in our hearts for so many years.

Q: How have our troubled times affected living composers and audiences?

A: The coronavirus has influenced so much of our lives, and of course, this disastrous war in Ukraine, probably one of the most shocking ones because we really couldn’t imagine that in a territory which we could almost call European, something like that could happen in the 21st century. That gives an impulse to the composers of today to express emotionally what they feel about the world and this war. Between Beethoven and the composers of today, there might be some emotional link and the audience may appreciate the contemporary side more and see certain parallels with what composers write in these troubled times. Putting great works of the past together with great works of the future is very interesting for me to explore and, hopefully, for the audience to accept.

Q: Will it be any easier going forward for women to achieve success as conductors than it has been in the past?

A: There should be an equal chance for women conductors, and we see many talented students and already established conductors. One of our assistant conductors, Anna Rakitina, is very impressive and she is making a wonderful career with guest appearances elsewhere, I’m very proud.

Q: Being from Latvia, part of the former Soviet Union, how do you feel about some orchestras shying away from Russian music and some Russian musicians not welcome because they’re supporting Putin and not condemning the war?

A: I think if you look at any civilization, any country’s history, there is so much wonderful, great music, poetry, literature, science, but there are bad people everywhere. You’d think we would have learned from history, but it seems that’s not true. Hitler, Stalin, Putin, the evil doesn’t associate with certain nations or groups of people, it’s something universal. Unfortunately, in an innocent world of art and music which has nothing to do with wars, this time the evil is in a country with such a rich tradition of music, literature and so on. If someone is openly, excitingly backing the regime which is evil, that can’t be supported. We have to fight against evil, wherever it comes from. We’re not fighting against the nation and its people, we’re fighting against the leader of this terrible thing, and in this case it’s Russia.

Q: What makes Tanglewood so special for you each summer?

A: It’s almost like a paradise, and I feel the same way as I did the first time. The atmosphere, nature, different artists, conductors, soloists, students, I have an even greater sense of belonging. It gives a lot of energy, new ideas, things to think about and a lot of new friendships. It’s always very clear that this journey is something special for everyone.

Q: Do you find that performances here are different from those you conduct in Boston’s Symphony Hall?

A: Here it’s so connected with nature and many pieces make even more sense to perform here than in a closed concert hall. That’s why any conductor who comes here has an opportunity to present a different perspective. Individual soloists from the orchestra can be more expressive here than in Symphony Hall where it would all blend differently. We need to project, breathe and phrase the sound all the way to the back of the lawn.

Q: How have you and the orchestra players achieved such a special relationship and warmth?

A: I’m really lucky to work with such a great group of wonderful human beings who have been supporting me and giving so much energy and trust. In the rehearsals, sometimes we don’t need to talk, we communicate through certain indications, and that’s an extremely pleasurable feeling. You change something which you didn’t do yesterday and they come together. The trust from both sides has been important for me. It’s still a honeymoon that doesn’t end, and the players love Tanglewood so much, even though it’s very busy. Also, they work with students of the Tanglewood Music Center., sharing a certain energy. We take care of the future generation and pass on the traditions.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com.

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