Boston gives whirlwind welcome to conductor
There were banners across the city, a welcoming party of hundreds in Symphony Hall, and a ceremonial first pitch delivered at Fenway Park. It was a fine way to mark the city’s official Andris Nelsons Day.
Nelsons, the Latvian conductor chosen to become the 15th music director in the history of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was embraced by his new city at every turn last week. He returned the affection, telling the morning crowd of 850 applauding subscribers, musicians and board members that he feels lucky to be in Boston.
“I’m in a dream,” Nelsons said. “I really think that the music is the food for our souls. To be involved and being a part of the family that’s responsible in taking care of all our souls through the music, I feel extremely privileged.”
Nelsons, 34, signed his contract with the BSO in full view of the crowd with a pen made of wood from Symphony Hall’s old concert stage, a vivid contrast to his predecessor, James Levine, who operated without a contract in his final years.
“We’ve reeled him in,” a beaming BSO board chairman Ted Kelly said of Nelsons.
Twelve years ago, when Levine was announced as the orchestra’s new leader, the BSO held a press conference catered with sandwiches, and then the renowned maestro headed back to New York.
“Levine is what he was,” said Robert O’Block, a vice chairman of the BSO board. “It was pretty clear he wasn’t going to become an integral part of the community, but the gifts he brought musically to the orchestra were remarkable.
“With Andris, Boston is his primary location and primary interest. He’s terrific, and one of the tasks is we need to introduce him to the community.”
Nelsons’ five-year contract begins in 2014-2015, but he will conduct at Tanglewood in July, leading the BSO and Tanglewood Festival Chorus in a performance of Verdi’s monumental “Requiem.”
His wife, Kristine Opolais, will be the soprano soloist. The couple have a daughter, Adriana, 18 months old.
In his first day under contract, Nelsons revealed few musical specifics, other than that he will conduct works by Bruckner and Shostakovich, composers Levine would not perform. Nelsons, in discussing his eagerness to tour with the BSO, compared the orchestra to a Ferrari at one point, eliciting applause, and drew more cheers when, after briefly pausing to look at the ceiling, Nelsons declared Symphony Hall “the best concert hall in America.”
As smoothly as he handled the crowd, this day was far from relaxing.
Nelsons flew into Boston late Monday night, signed his deal, conducted interviews, lunched with trustees, performed with a brass ensemble at Faneuil Hall, threw out his Fenway pitch, and then was set to fly back to England for a Wednesday rehearsal with the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, where he is music director.
He was wearing a blue sportcoat and black slacks with a white shirt open at the neck as he entered Symphony Hall just after 11 a.m. to sign his deal. Then he sat in a soft chair next to BSO managing director Mark Volpe and took questions from the audience.
One man wanted to know about how Nelsons thought orchestras could encourage more people to attend concerts.
Another man asked for help tracking down an obscure Bruckner recording Nelsons had made in Birmingham.
When asked about his first experience leading the BSO, standing in for an injured Levine in 2011, he turned to look at the stage behind him.
“It’s a great piece and I was so nervous and so excited,” he said. “And now, of course, I’ve signed the contract so we can talk about the future. ... I think first thing and the most important thing, for me, is that Boston becomes my musical home, my musical family.”
He charmed longtime subscribers.
“It’s exciting, it’s young, it’s like going to the opening of a new restaurant,” said Leslie Warshaw, a subscriber for more than 45 years who was at Symphony Hall. “You know something wonderful is going to happen. You just don’t know what yet. I’m more excited than I have been for a long time.”
Mary DeGarmo, another longtime subscriber, said she appreciated hearing that Nelsons looked forward to moving to Boston and becoming a part of the community
“It’s very nice to know he’ll invest himself in Boston,” she said. “His youth speaks louder to me than anything else. That’s what the BSO needs.”
At a luncheon afterward with trustees, Nelsons tasted lobster for the first time and then circled the room, posing for photographs as if at his wedding.
Joseph Hearne, a bass player in the BSO since 1962, pointed to all of the smiles in the room. He also compared the feeling to when Seiji Ozawa, then just 37, was hired in 1973.
“There is such a love of this young man,” he said. “Levine was a great artist but there’s a certain innocence to this young man I find very appealing.”
At Faneuil Hall, late Tuesday afternoon with the temperature still hovering in the 90s, Nelsons and an 11-player BSO brass ensemble performed “The Great Gate of Kiev,” a movement from Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”
Then Nelsons, sweaty and holding his jacket, shook hands, paused for photos snapped on cellphones, and even took requests.
“I saw you earlier today,” a man in a gray suit said. “Bruckner’s choral works. I’d love some of those.”
As night fell, Nelsons headed into Gate C at Fenway for perhaps his most difficult assignment.
Early in the morning, over breakfast, he told Volpe he had watched some baseball but was concerned. He didn’t know how he was going to throw a pitch past a batter. Volpe explained that nobody would be at the plate except a catcher.
Later, while chatting with BSO concertmaster Malcolm Lowe, Nelsons made two different throwing motions, one sidearm, one more overhand.
“It is this way or this way?” Nelsons asked as he made a pair of throwing motions.
At Fenway, after getting a uniform with number 15, Nelsons ran into Red Sox great Pedro Martinez, who offered advice.
“Just don’t bounce it,” he said, smiling.
Nelsons didn’t. A few minutes later, on the mound and in uniform, the maestro let the ball go hard. It sailed through the air, arcing a good 25 feet over the catcher and into the hands of a photographer.
“At least he didn’t bounce it,” Red Sox executive vice president Charles Steinberg chuckled as fans cheered, another signal the Nelsons era had begun.