An instrumentalist and a conductor trumpet their friendship Sunday at Tanglewood

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LENOX — "Have we changed?" trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger asks. "I don't think so. We are just as silly as we always were."

"We make fun," conductor Andris Nelsons replies. "The basic thing really doesn't change, the curiosity about exploring the music." A moment later: "We kind of understand each other without talking."

That's shop talk between old friends who will take the stage together Sunday afternoon at Tanglewood. You can eavesdrop on the conversation on a video about a London performance of HK Gruber's "Aerial," a trumpet concerto they'll reprise Sunday with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The scene changes now from video to Tanglewood, live. Sitting for an interview, Nelsons says: "As an ex-trumpet player, for me he is a big hero. He's the king of the trumpet."

Not quite ex. Nelsons still picks up the instrument as his form of relaxation. It's like yoga, he says, especially for breathing, which is necessary for musicians' playing. Hardenberger gave him the instrument that started him practicing again after 17 years.

Nelsons gives the interview between bouts of practice. Among other things, he's practicing the opening fanfare of Mahler's Fifth Symphony, which he'll conduct on opening night. At the concert, BSO principal trumpeter Thomas Rolfs will do the honors.

The scene now changes to St. Petersburg. As a trumpet student, the 11-year-old Nelsons encounters Hardenberger on Soviet-era cassette copies of Western compact discs.

Nelsons thinks, "Oh, this would be a dream if I could study with this great trumpet player. But of course I was in the Soviet Union and there was no way."

In 2001, at 22, Nelsons has given up the trumpet, studied conducting in Russia — it's now Russia — and turned himself into a conductor.

The scene changes to a plane heading to Latvia, 2001. The Latvian-born Nelsons, now music director of the Riga opera, is flying back to Riga to conduct the opera orchestra in a concert. Near him is sitting the Swedish Hardenberger, who, in their first collaboration, is to be the concert soloist.

Nelsons recognizes him but is "too scared to tell I was his conductor." Hardenberger is also uncertain. "I didn't know exactly," he recalls "but I thought that must be him. And of course, he had only seen me on record covers." Remembering the hesitancy, Hardenberger laughs his hearty laugh.

Nelsons gets up his nerve and introduces himself. "I told him how great it was to see him." They talk. A collaboration and friendship begin. "He is my big brother," Nelsons can now declare.

The scene changes back to Tanglewood, 2014. Making his Tanglewood debut, Hardenberger is here to play Rolf Martinsson's trumpet concerto "Bridge" with the BSO under Nelsons.

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Once a trumpet player, always a trumpet player. So thinking, after a rehearsal, in the presence of the BSO trumpet section, Hardenberger gives his friend a trumpet. It's the same model as his own, from the same maker.

Nelsons puts the instrument to his lips, closes his eyes, and outcomes "a very beautiful one, simple note," Hardenberger remembers. "And you could see how he connected with something that was very deeply grounded in him."

Hardenberger laughs his hearty laugh. Now when he's in the soloist's room backstage preparing to play, he can't escape the sound of Nelsons practicing trumpet in the green room as he warms up for podium duty.

Nelsons says Hardenberger has become mentor to him and the BSO's Thomas Rolfs. Along with students, they are "like a trumpet family here."

Scene, Germany, 2019. On a walk together, Hardenberger, 57, recalls, "I'm quite a bit older than him and I could see him all wrapped up" in work. He asks if there was ever something Nelsons, [40], did that had nothing to do with music.

Nelsons says as a boy he used to go fishing. Very simple, he says, just dipping a line.

Back in Latvia, Hardenberger treats his friend to a three-day fishing expedition aboard a hired yacht at the junction of a river and the Baltic Sea. They talk trumpet. They stay in a rented cabin.

In three days, they each catch one fish weighing about five pounds.

Fast forward to Tanglewood and Gruber's "Aerial" this Sunday. Hardenberger says he has played the two-movement work about 85 times, at least 15 of them with Nelsons. The title is meant to suggest a view of Earth from another planet.

The first movement is love music, Hardenberger says, but in the second movement an old man and a boy look down on Earth and find it empty. A sign says "gone dancing." The old man recounts when there was dancing on Earth. There were Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and                                                                                 

The piece is both comic and tragic, Hardenberger says, "because what we're doing with our earth is spinning, we're dancing ourselves to death."                                                                                                                        

"I think it's always great to accompany him and I've done it so many times," Nelsons says.                         

They make fun.


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