CBSO artistic director Andris Nelsons has taken up a new position in the US. He talks to Christopher Morley about the challenges ahead on either side of the Atlantic.
When I first registered “Andris Nelsons” as a daily Google alert for me I began to receive a barrage of references to some American baseball-player or other, followed by a few mentions of the young conductor who was “leading” (as the Americans say) our City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Gradually the baseball chap took three strikes, and the musical Nelsons took centre stage.
A couple of years ago the American press became full of rumours that Nelsons was set to become the next music director of the august Boston Symphony Orchestra, having made a spectacular debut standing-in for the ailing James Levine.
And now those rumours have come true, Nelsons having accepted that position, which begins at the start of the 2014-15 concert season, the end of which sees the termination of his permanent contract with the CBSO (there will be a rolling contract year-on-year after that). And Google alert is once again bursting.
“As I remember, you once asked me one-and-a-half years ago about Boston,” Andris tells me from Amsterdam, where he is preparing for a concert with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.
“At that moment I didn’t know anything, and nobody else did! Really, this decision has been made recently; for whatever reasons, they took time, but then actually that decision was made very quickly.”
Andris has told me several times how much he hates flying. How is he going to cope with all this travelling, especially as he still lives in his hometown of Riga?
“There are so many things where I thought how I’d manage. I’m very Europe-orientated, but I think in my mind, and in any other people’s minds, this is founded in the city. And also in America, there is that tradition for city orchestras; and that was very familiar to me. It is not so far away.
“But of course, flying! This is something I have to overcome. Of course I’m flying every week, and at the end it’s just six more hours away from Riga; put the two hours from Birmingham, and it’s just a little more flying,” Andris stoically declares.
But how will he spend all those long lonely hours? Will he be able to work?
“At the moment I’m thinking about sleeping! I can’t normally study on planes.”
And how about the effect this appointment will have upon Andris’ family life? He and his wife, international soprano Kristine Opolais have a 17th-month-old daughter Adriana.
“It sounds like a big challenge, and a certain direction towards the American east coast. Because of course being the music director in Boston I have my duties, and I want to feel the same extraordinary feelings as what I feel with the CBSO in Birmingham, with the audiences as well, and with the people involved.
“Of course it takes time. And of course my wife Kristine, she is singing quite a lot with the Metropolitan in New York in the future, at least twice a year, and that’s four hours’ drive away from Boston, so we can be together a lot more.
“It’s a lot of planning, a lot of expectations, and challenges as well. I think that the model for me, for great relationships in an extraordinary way with orchestras, comes from Birmingham. That is something very unique. I don’t, I can’t wish better, you know, I don’t think it’s possible!
“I have my love for the CBSO, and we are completing our journey at least until 2015. And we try to work forward, always in the sense that the planning and the practicalities.
“And I will always have two great loves, and in my heart that’s for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and then for the Boston Symphony Orchestra as well. I mean, there are many conductors having two orchestras, and that is comfortable. The Boston Symphony Orchestra is one of America’s greatest, and among those that’s the closest to my heart, and I’m very happy that I can work with such an orchestra, and I really want to make a great family with them.
“In the mean time, I have another family which is the CBSO, which is extraordinary and we already have done so many things together, and looking forward to many things in the future again.
“It came all so sudden to me, the time between me knowing and everyone knowing was not very big at all. But in a way, it was very similar I remember to when I first came to Birmingham. It was very sudden, it was a very quick decision.”
Andris has often told me how much he would like to be around for the 2020 centenary of the CBSO’s founding.
“Yes, that was the thing I was thinking that I would stay,” he admits. “I should leave earlier, or I should stay for the 2020. So I don’t know what will exactly happen in that extraordinarily important year. I really can’t tell how long I will be in my position with the CBSO. It’s planning, planning. How much time do I have for Birmingham and Boston, for guesting, particularly with Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, and that’s as far as I can see.”
As our conversation ends, Andris is keen to emphasise his attachment to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. “You know, I love the CBSO extremely. You know, I actually spoke with Sir Simon (Rattle), who called me after hearing the news, to congratulate me about Boston. So we spoke about things, we talked about Berlin (which Rattle leaves in 2018, and Nelsons has been touted as a possible successor), and about CBSO.
“And I think the CBSO is always open in his heart with a special feeling. It is an orchestra which really love their conductor, I think. I wish I would, but I don’t think I would ever receive such a love from an orchestra like I felt from the CBSO.
“But I wish that every conductor felt as happy as me, being in charge of the CBSO.”
Ready for a season of great celebration
* General public booking opens on May 30 for the CBSO’s 2013-14 Birmingham concert season, its sixth under Andris Nelsons’ music directorship.
Various anniversaries are celebrated during the series: the centenary of Stravinsky’s almost literally ground-breaking Rite of Spring, the birth in that same 1913 year of Benjamin Britten with a choral tribute from the CBSO’s celebrated choruses under choral director Simon Halsey (who has recently announced his 2016 retirement from the directorship of the Berlin Radio Chorus), and the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss.
The Strauss celebration features Andris Nelsons conducting the epic Symphonia Domestica, Don Juan, the Four Last Songs (Erin Wall the soprano soloist), and a concert-performance of his wonderfully nostalgic opera Der Rosenkavalier. There are other operatic offerings, too: Bartok’s terrifyingly expressionistic Duke Bluebeard’s Castle conducted by principal guest conductor Edward Gardner, bringing his expertise from his position at the helm of English National Opera, and, absolutely diametrically opposite, Gilbert and Sullivan’s deliciously witty and satirical Trial by Jury, John Wilson conducting.
Edward Gardner is at the helm for what promises to be a wonderful experience: the complete cycle of Mendelssohn symphonies, returning the CBSO to its previous home, Birmingham Town Hall, where the spirit of Mendelssohn, who was so much involved in this wonderful building’s early years, still hovers.
Five premieres beckon, from Birmingham Conservatoire graduate Charlotte Bray, Brett Dean, the award-winning (with involvement from Birmingham Contemporary Music Group) Gerald Barry , Francisco Coll and Hans Abrahamsen.
We can look forward to f guest soloists, including violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, pianist (among his many other talents) Thomas Ades, trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger, and Benjamin Grosvenor, the most exciting young pianist of his generation, and here making his CBSO debut. There are too many goodies on offer to mention individually, but I must just single out one, the concert on April 26 when John Storgards conducts the CBSO Chorus and Youth Chorus in Holst’s Hymn of Jesus (Sakari Oramo still owes me a return of my score and CD of that), Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, and Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, Mark Stone the baritone soloist.
* Booking details on 0121 345 0603 or www.cbso.co.uk