Alan Chartock | League of genius: BSO's Nelsons, Volpe, Fogg

We are incredibly lucky to have the great Andris Nelsons as the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The Latvian-born Nelsons is truly a force of nature. To watch him move when he is conducting is to admire the incredible amount of energy and passion he puts into his work.

When we saw him up close conducting Mahler's Symphony No. 2 on the opening night of Tanglewood, he was dressed all in black, reminding one of the late Johnny Cash.

I recently had the distinct pleasure of interviewing this great man who knows more about music than most music critics. (As an aside, I have always wondered how much actual musical experience some of these critics have as in, "Those who can, play, and those who can't, critique." But enough of that.) I found Nelsons to be a really gentle and, above all, nice man.

Nelsons' first musical love was the trumpet, an instrument I have struggled with for years. Over 15 years ago, he left our mutual instrument to become what many people believe is the best conductor of the best orchestra in the world. Recently, he was delighted when two of the top trumpet players in the world presented him with a trumpet and asked him to join a trumpet trio with the fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. Apparently, he distinguished himself.

I asked him about how long it took him to get his lip in shape, and he admitted it was rough after 16 years off, but he did it. He did say that he hadn't lost his ability to deal with the mechanics of playing but as every trumpet player knows, lips can be tough.

Nelsons is a kind man and he treats those he is dealing with in a thoughtful and respectful manner. He thinks about questions and then answers as truthfully and as tactfully as he can.

I have always wondered about the Boston Symphony Orchestra's great conductors, like Ozawa and Nelsons, and what their lives are like. These folks' talents are of such magnitude that they are in demand all over the world.

Nelsons has to choose the music and rehearse the orchestra and work with the soloists and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus under its excellent new conductor, James Burton. These are massive demands on his time. And the product that comes out of all of this is extraordinary. His Mahler work is just beyond anything that we mortal humans might ever accomplish. I am not a music critic, but I have played in several very minor orchestras and I know what goes into even these minor league efforts.

Of course the administration of the orchestra falls to two geniuses, Mark Volpe, who manages everything, and Tony Fogg, the artistic director whose job is incredibly complex. He has to travel the world finding the best talent to play as soloists, and then, when someone has a sore throat or any other kind of malady, he has to find a replacement, often with just hours to spare. He never fails to deliver.

Frankly, it would be too much for most other humans and would probably give most of us high blood pressure or ulcers. Like Nelsons, Fogg is a kind and generous man with a good sense of humor. I do know that the two men work incredibly well together. As for Mark Volpe, I shudder to think what the BSO would be like without him.

I know Volpe, Fogg, and Nelsons would all dismiss my use of the term "genius" and that's one of the charming things about all three. Nevertheless, geniuses they are.

Volpe has surrounded himself with extraordinary staff who clearly adore the man. But in the end, it all comes down to him. My respect for the man is just unlimited.

What a crew.

Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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