New Boston Symphony Orchestra Music Director Andris Nelsons sets musical bar high

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This article was updated on July 10, 2014 to reflect that James Levine last performed at Tanglewood in 2009.

LENOX -- Andris Nelsons, the incoming music director of the Boston Symphony, is brimming with ideas, goals and dreams for the orchestra whose future is largely in his hands.

Amid high hopes and great expectations for his key leadership role, the charismatic, down-to-earth 35-year-old, Latvian-born conductor arrived at Tanglewood on Monday for an intensive, high-profile two-week residency.

He champions the BSO's summer home for offering "the high intellectual prestige of being serious but still a very accessible festival. People here can get the best quality, it's not a factory feeling. But at the same time, it's a fun place, a beautiful place. And the school is an absolutely amazing thing as well, an extraordinary part of Tanglewood. It's a privilege to be here."

His schedule is overflowing with four concerts on two weekends, beginning this Friday evening, numerous rehearsals, meetings with administrators, trustees, donors, volunteers and other supporters. The BSO has lacked a music director since the ailing James Levine resigned in 2011 -- he had not performed at Tanglewood since the 2009 season.

Nelsons is only the third BSO music director in the past 40 years -- Seiji Ozawa served from 1973 until 2002, followed by Levine.

Noting that it's only his second visit to Tanglewood -- he appeared in 2012 during the BSO's prolonged search for a successor to Levine -- Nelsons said he's "very excited" about his upcoming concerts and exploration of the campus.

"From the first moment two years ago, it was absolutely amazing to see the atmosphere here and it's such a brilliant acoustic," said Nelsons during an Eagle interview backstage at the Koussevitzky Music Shed. "It's really a miracle for an outside venue and that leads to many ideas, dreams and things which we could do. So now, I'm brainstorming with myself and the management about what we will do at such a great place."

Appearing at ease following his work with the orchestra on Tuesday, Nelsons offered a highly personal, candid and impassioned view on classical music's importance as a spiritual, emotional and intellectual experience.

Asked how best to rejuvenate the Tanglewood audience, Nelsons said "there's absolutely nothing wrong and it's absolutely normal that the older generation is more attracted to classical music; it's been always like that."

He cited the demands of school and college on young people, "and then you start your family and you're busy with that. But young families could start going to concerts maybe monthly or every two months."

Eventually, "they go to concerts more and more, and this cycle is understandable," he added. "If people are working and they have three or four kids, they don't have much time."

But, Nelsons emphasized, exposure to classical music in school is crucial: "At least they'll know about it. They might not like it at first, I hated to play piano, I wanted to play football, but I loved music and through piano, went to singing, trumpet and then conducting. I am so thankful, and I know it's because of my education, which was forced, in a mild way."

He voiced optimism, as long as music is taught in school.

"If we lose that, then there is a danger," Nelsons said. "It should be in schools as an obligated subject. If you don't have a humanitarian side, history of art and music, then you're not complete as a human being.

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"There's very often the idea that classical music is something painful, like going to the dentist," he said. On the contrary, "it's fun, it's energetic, it's about life and emotions, it's not an academic museum thing, it's not painful, it's a relief. If people feel this emotional connection, they will come back."

Nelsons is keen on the role of technology: "Absolutely, we should take advantage of it and be involved in that, not to stay out and say ‘classical music is a museum value' which, in a way, it is but accessibility should go with the times. Through these devices, we should give access to music, but of course not in a cheapened way."

Citing ringtones and commercials, he cautioned that there's a "borderline, how far you can help music or actually do the opposite."

To celebrate the Tanglewood Music Center's 75-year anniversary next summer, the TMC Orchestra and the BSO will combine for a gala presentation of Mahler's gargantuan Eighth Symphony with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and vocal soloists. Nelsons will spend three weeks here, to be followed by a post-season BSO tour to Europe.

His initial five-year contract with the BSO takes effect in September, but as music director designate, he is already deeply immersed in artistic and administrative responsibilities.

Nelsons confirmed "a lot of ideas, temptations, including opera because this has been a tradition in concert versions as well as staged. We don't have direct plans exactly, we still have this brainstorming to do."

"The Tanglewood Festival is the best in America for classical music," he said, observing that because of his future commitments to conduct Wagner operas at the five-week, late summer Bayreuth Festival in Germany, a great deal of travel and careful logistical planning are inevitable.

As for working with rising young musicians at the TMC, Nelsons said he would be only be sharing his experiences, "because I've never taught, I'm studying myself, you know, I'm looking for a teacher myself!"

The Eagle's classical music critic, Andrew L. Pincus, contributed to this report.

To contact Clarence Fanto:
or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto

In his own words

Some of incoming BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons' thoughts during an interview at Tanglewood:

On training young conductors: "Things work very individually, you can't always predict and that's why it's so mystical, you can't guarantee that a person who goes through any education system will be a great conductor. Then it is up to God, up to talent, but for practical experience, I've learned so much from seeing great conductors. So I'm thinking of trying to share my experience in a certain way."

On the value of music: "I think this is the highest form of art, in my opinion, because it goes maybe the closest to God. It's this kind of mystic thing as well, and it's connected with the intellectual level, so obviously it always will be easier for some people to listen to a 3- or 4-minute pop song which is a nice genre, nothing wrong with it. That's normal, but I think we need to find the way to people's hearts, so they can experience it, it's the adrenalin the same as a football match. But it has to be great quality, great programming, so we can inspire the audience to feel they want to come back."

On his favored repertoire: "I feel closer to periods of music, it has to do with my personality, education and where I come from -- very much the Germanic tradition, and of course Slavic, these two worlds, and also Scandinavian -- Latvia being ruled by Swedes, Poles, Russians, Germans, it's made such a strong cultural tradition because of these huge influences."

On new music: "We have to educate the audience, we have to enlarge the repertoire and it's our task to introduce new music, but this is like a family feeling between the music director, the orchestra, management and the audience. It's nice that we all think about music and culture being part of the quality of life. We try our best so people feel that the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood are part of their lives, not every day but occasionally. If they feel that way, we can sometimes offer more risky music and they will go with you."


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