The New York Times, SEPT. 28, 2014
|By ANTHONY TOMMASINI
Konzert, Boston, 27. September 2014
A Conductor Tries to Soar Amid High Expectations
Andris Nelsons Begins Tenure Leading Boston Symphony
The Andris Nelsons era at the Boston Symphony Orchestra began on Saturday
night when this exciting Latvian conductor led a festive program at Symphony
Hall to begin his tenure as the ensemble’s 15th music director. Though just
35, Mr. Nelsons has become one of the most respected and sought-after
conductors in the field. The buzz in Boston and the extensive media coverage
his arrival has generated show that music lovers in this city are grateful
to have him. As he walked to the podium on Saturday he was greeted with a
long, rousing ovation; many people were on their feet.
But the best
indication that Mr. Nelsons was a strong choice for the job was the superb
playing of the musicians of this great orchestra, especially in, of all
things, Respighi’s familiar 1924 symphonic poem, “Pines of Rome.” If you are
going to conclude an important inaugural concert with a shameless showpiece,
well, picking this skillfully written, dazzlingly orchestrated and colorful
score was the way to go. Mr. Nelsons drew a glittering, textured and
cinematic account of that 20-minute work from his players.
Nelsons wrote in a program note, in planning his first Boston season he
wanted to listen to his heart and share works and artists he loves. For this
occasion he was joined by two star singers: the magnificent tenor Jonas
Kaufmann and the beguiling soprano Kristine Opolais, who is married to Mr.
Nelsons and on this of all nights belonged up there with him.
there were substantive works and some terrific performances on this mixed
program, the concert, for an event so important, was in the nature of a
gala. That’s fine, of course. Still, Mr. Nelsons missed a chance to make a
strong statement of artistic purpose, especially by not including any music
by a living composer. In contrast, Alan Gilbert opened his first program as
music director of the New York Philharmonic in 2009 with the premiere of an
exuberant, spiky piece by Magnus Lindberg, whom Mr. Gilbert had appointed
the orchestra’s composer in residence. That fall Gustavo Dudamel also began
his first program as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic with a
premiere: John Adams’s “City Noir,” an ambitious 35-minute work.
Nelsons devoted the first half of this program to Wagner, starting with a
staple: the Overture to “Tannhäuser.” He does have some contemporary works
and premieres on his conducting schedule for the season. But his timidity on
this night was disappointing.
I was not swept away by the performance
of the “Tannhäuser” overture. There were impressive qualities to it: The
solemn music of the Pilgrim’s March was played with richness and depth; the
melting string sound was almost tactile. Still, Mr. Nelsons may have been
striving for too much profundity. The music felt draggy and some liberties
of phrasing felt mannered. When the overture broke into the breathless,
sensual, shimmering music of the Venusberg, the performance gained more
profile and character.
Then Mr. Kaufmann sang “In Fernem Land” from
Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” the third-act narrative in which the mysterious
stranger of the story finally reveals that he is Lohengrin, the son of
Parsifal, a knight of the grail. Mr. Kaufmann sang the role superbly in a
2010 production of the opera at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany with Mr.
Nelsons conducting a formidable account of the score. On Saturday during the
narrative, when Mr. Kaufmann sang of far-off lands, it truly seemed as if he
was intimately recalling episodes of his life from some distant memory
place. When he summoned his full voice in fearsome phrases he was the
embodiment of a Wagnerian heldentenor.
Then Mr. Nelsons conducted
Wagner’s Prelude and “Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde,” with Ms. Opolais
bravely moving beyond her vocal comfort zone to sing music associated with
powerful dramatic soprano voices. Still, she brought tenderness, longing and
shimmering warmth to her somewhat cautious but affecting performance of the
After intermission, Mr. Kaufmann, showing
off another dimension of his artistry, absolutely nailed the throbbing,
emotive aria “Mamma, quel vino è generoso” from Mascagni’s verismo melodrama
“Cavalleria rusticana.” Ms. Opolais was in her element performing “Un bel
dì” from Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” And Mr. Nelsons conducted a
refreshingly direct performance of the orchestral Intermezzo from
“Cavalleria rusticana” before the evening’s two singers finally joined for a
duet: an intense, impassioned account of “Tu, Tu, amore? Tu?” from Act II of
Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut.” At this point in the story, young Manon, having
abandoned her handsome lover Des Grieux after his money ran out, has been
living off a rich older man. During this duet Des Grieux berates her, but to
no avail. She is too desirable to resist. It was fun to see the charismatic
Mr. Kaufmann kissing and caressing the lovely Ms. Opolais while her husband
was on the podium nearby. Tenors and sopranos carry on in opera all the
time, but usually not when one of them is being directed to do so by a
Before Mr. Nelsons finished the concert with the
Respighi work, he led the singers in an extra treat: the “O Soave Fanciulla”
duet from the end of Act I of Puccini’s “La Bohème,” another winning
performance that had the audience again on its feet.
The arrival of a
music director is always momentous for an orchestra. But Mr. Nelsons comes
at a crucial time for the Boston Symphony, which has had a leadership
vacuum. When James Levine, the previous music director, was appointed, the
administration and the players wanted him so badly that the orchestra went
without a full-time music director for two seasons as they waited for Mr.
Levine’s schedule to open up. He began in 2004 and for several years did
some great things. His health problems eventually caused him to miss many
performances and he resigned in 2011, which again left the orchestra
Mr. Nelsons is going to have to provide not just
inspiration but steadiness. He seems poised to offer both. You can imagine,
though, that all the chatter in the music world about the Berlin
Philharmonic looking at him as a potential successor to Simon Rattle, who
intends to step down in 2018, must be making everyone in Boston nervous. But
if Mr. Nelsons dedicates himself, takes some chances and reaches out to
living composers, especially those in the Boston area, he could be just what
this essential orchestra needs.