The BSO’s Andris Nelsons: Maestro of ‘Emotionality’

The Boston Symphony’s new maestro Andris Nelsons is a boisterous young athlete in an old man’s job – one of the rising 30-somethings in front of the great orchestras of the world. And still he seems younger than that and more different than we expected — almost childlike, when he’s reaching out with an open-arm hug for the sound he wants from his players. The look could be early Jack Nicholson, but the back story as we’re hearing it in his green room is boyhood in Latvia, as the Soviet era came apart 25 years ago. It matters that he was tuned musically between empires: Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich on the Russian side, Wagner, Strauss and Mahler to the West in Germany. It turns out that Maestro Nelsons talks the way he plays: emotionally unguarded, with big-spirited ideas about where great music comes from, and how it connects with us. Backstage he is telling us — with grand gestures, some singing, much laughter — about some of the “thousand voices” in his head before a performance.

Of course these theological / philosophical / ‘to be or not to be’ questions are of course among the thousand. They are saying: ‘you are not a good guy’ or ‘you can’t do anything; it’s too early for you to conduct this piece, or that piece.’ Those voices are there all the time, but then they’re saying: ‘you must perform this piece — Tchaikovsky 6 or The Rite of Spring — and you can’t produce it in just a professional way.’ It’s saying: ‘you have to be emotionally involved with all your professionality and your personality as well.’

In The Rite of Spring, there is a lot of this orthodox, mystical, natural, wild thing. In Stravinsky I couldn’t call it religious in the sense of Christianity, but of course there is a search for explanation, trying to find what it is, what the world means… I think even Stravinsky is maybe not flirting but coquetting when he says it’s not emotional. It is what’s inside the human soul. When it’s over, I feel energized… You feel energized from the earth, but also you want to take a shower…

Of course I am like a big child, and I hope to stay like that. Music expresses our inside world, and for me as a conductor, to have a chemistry with the musicians is extremely important. If we perform and we are not on the same ship emotionally, I don’t believe we can perform any piece honestly or very well… In this close human familiar feeling consists our humanity. And love, in a way. I love my musicians, and I respect them. I encourage them not be shy, to show their emotions. Of course it goes together with knowledge, experience, professionality and a tradition, you know. It is not only spontaneous feeling. But how can you perform “Tristan” if you don’t love. For example, loving my family. It all comes through the small things. It’s like chamber music, and then it can spread. It all starts with your family, and if you experience that you can share and love in a wider range. Sometimes I think it is easier to invent an airplane than to experience real love, for example. And it is actually worth much more to raise a child as a good person than to invent an airplane.

Reading List
Alex Ross
New Yorker review of Andris Nelsons at Boston's Symphony Hall. From the December 1, 2014 issue.
Andris Nelsons And The BSO: The Beginning Of A Beautiful Relationship?
Ed Siegel
Review on WBUR's Artery blog. November 25, 2014.
Nelsons Conducts Gubaidulina and Sibelius
Radio broadcast of Sofia Gubaidulina's Offertorium and Jean Sibelius's Symphony No. 2. November 8, 2014.

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  • Cambridge Forecast


    Here’s a musicology side-note that might add to the pleasure of the ROS discussion with the
    incoming BSO conductor.

    Michael Tilson Thomas, the famous head of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and well-known musical explainer and presenter, considers Arthur Schnabel one of his musical teachers and guides. Tilson Thomas quotes approvingly Schabel’s dictum:

    “He decided that he wanted to play only “music which is better than it could be performed.”

    Quoted in: Schnabel, Artur (1961, republished 1988). My Life And Music. New York & London:

    Artur Schnabel (17 April, 1882 – 15 August, 1951) was an Austrian classical pianist, who also
    composed and taught. Schnabel was known for his intellectual seriousness as a musician,
    avoiding pure technical bravura.


    My Life and Music. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.
    Reprinted 1988. ISBN 0-486-25571-9. Transcripts of the twelve lectures held by Schnabel at
    the University of Chicago in 1945.

    Music, Wit, and Wisdom.
    Ed. Werner Grünzweig and Lynn Matheson. Hofheim: Wolke, 2009. ISBN
    978-3-936000-53-5. New edition of My Life and Music, revised
    according to the sources held at the Music Archive of the Akademie der Künste, Berlin.

    Music and the Line of Most Resistance. Rev. and ed. edition. Ed. Lynn Matheson and Ann
    Schnabel Mottier. Hofheim: Wolke, 2007. ISBN 978-3-936000-51-1. First published Princeton University Press, 1942.
    Transcripts of lectures that Schnabel gave at Harvard University and at the University of Chicago.

    My Life and Music Comment:

    “A clear picture of a musician of rare integrity.” — The Musical Times. Highly
    readable reminiscences, musical philosophy of great pianist: his experiences as
    a child prodigy in turn-of-the-century Vienna, concert career, thoughts on
    great conductors and composers of the day, preferences in the repertoire, much
    more. Also includes “Reflections on Music,” address delivered at University of Manchester, 1933. Introduction by Edward Crankshaw. 20 illustrations. Index.


    Richard Melson

  • Cambridge Forecast


    The ROS interview with maestro Nelsons has him say, inter alia:

    “In ‘The Rite of Spring’, there is a lot of this orthodox, mystical, natural, wild thing. In Stravinsky I
    couldn’t call it religious in the sense of Christianity, but of course there is
    a search for explanation, trying to find what it is, what the world means… I
    think even Stravinsky is maybe not flirting but coquetting when he says it’s
    not emotional. It is what’s inside the human soul. When it’s over, I feel
    energized… You feel energized from the earth, but also you want to take a

    Intriguingly, the BSO website comments about Adorno’s view of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”:

    “The German philosopher and musicologist Theodor Adorno, in his essay “Stravinsky and Reaction,” referred to such rhythms as “arbitrary,” the apparent product of a
    “throw of the dice.” For this reason, he saw The Rite as dehumanized and dehumanizing, the basis of a highly charged and controversial ideological critique of Stravinsky’s music. It is unlikely that Adorno intended for the image of “throwing dice” to be taken literally-one would
    assume that a composer such as Stravinsky was guided by his musical training
    and imagination, not by chance. But Adorno’s metaphor may have been closer to
    the truth than he realized. As I have recently suggested in a longer essay,
    drawing upon my analysis of Stravinsky’s score and sketches, Stravinsky seems
    to have employed a fundamentally mechanical procedure for generating the most
    striking rhythmic patterns in The Rite. The procedure is straightforward. First, he would take a prominent chord or melody and measure the distances (intervals) between adjacent pitches, generating a numerical series. Second, he would convert this series into a rhythmic pattern by
    reinterpreting the numbers as durations, measured in beats. In other words,
    Stravinsky seems to have transformed tonal relationships into rhythmic ones,
    creating hidden relationships that can only be perceived intellectually, not


    However brilliant on some of modernism’s convolutions, Adorno was quirky to the max and loathed jazz too.

    The historical British genius and jazz critic Eric Hobsbawm (interviewed by ROS a few years ago) saw Adorno’s writings as containing ‘some of the stupidest pages ever written about jazz’.

    Irritation with Adorno’s tunnel vision started even while he was alive. He may have championed
    Schoenberg, but the composer signally failed to return the compliment: ‘I have
    never been able to bear the fellow…It is disgusting, by the way how he treats Stravinsky.’


    See also:

    Richard Melson

  • Cambridge Forecast


    Christoper Lydon has several times mentioned Thomas Mann’s 1947 novel “Dr Faustus” in passing in various ROS contexts over the years and this novel might enrich the experience of the ROS reader or commenter in enjoying the charming ROS interview with the new BOS maestro Andris Nelsons of Latvia.

    An intelligent comment (by a Berlin-based musicologist Wolfgang Schneider) on Thomas Mann’s novel and its relationship to music and musical modernism is available here:

    “Mann and his musical demons”

    “Thomas Mann is considered the most music-obsessed author in the history of literature. His powers of description were at their best when he was writing about music. But professional musicians have constantly objected to his statements on music. How to explain that? ”

    And later on in the same essay:

    “Thomas Mann specialists love the chapter on music in ‘The Magic Mountain.’ …Throughout his life, Thomas Mann felt the need to verify his understanding of music with experts and he surrounded himself with musical mentors. Possibly his only real friend, his neighbor in Munich, Bruno Walter, was one of the great conductor of the day. When the General Music Director was picked up in the royal carriage, the writer often sat next to him.”


    Richard Melson