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Andris Nelsons And The BSO — Really Rocking In Boston?

Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra. (Hilary Scott)

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The Boston Symphony Orchestra has anointed Andris Nelsons its new artistic director. That they would go with such a youthful, charismatic choice speaks well of the BSO’s commitment to meet the 21st Century with a measure of dynamism. The BSO has not always been so friendly toward youth, having turned down Leonard Bernstein for Charles Munch and Michael Tilson Thomas for Seiji Ozawa. Ozawa was only nine years his senior, but at least a generation older as things turned out.

But let’s not be ageist about it. James Levine led the BSO out of the doldrums when he took over, even if his health prevented him from taking them to the promised land. One of the knocks on him, though, was that he never became part of the musical community.

As someone who has spent more time with theater folk, I can see why that’s an important issue. Nicholas Martin throwing open the doors of the Huntington to local actors and playwrights, when he became artistic director in 1999, helped make Boston a more livable city for the theater community. Peter DuBois has kept pace the past five years. The same goes for the Huntington anchoring the Boston Center for the Arts, making it a destination for a whole host of adventurous theatrics.

Still, that’s not the crucial element. The key to Nelsons’ success is whether he can make Symphony Hall an exciting place to be. I don’t think that was really ever true for Levine except for the dedicated Cult of Jimmy, who thrilled to his rapturous performances of 19th and 20th century music, as did I, and were equally enamored of his very narrow modern and contemporary aesthetic. (Shostakoviches and Golijovs need not apply.)

Andris Nelsons leads the BSO. (Stu Rosner)

Andris Nelsons leads the BSO. (Stu Rosner)

So how do you make Symphony Hall rock? First of all, you build on Levine’s successes. He made the BSO a first-class ensemble, which it hadn’t been in the last years of Ozawa, maybe it never was under him. But while Ozawa was running the show there were spectacular teamings in other cities – Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Cleveland Orchestra, Esa Pekka-Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and — yes — Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony.

How did they do it? First of all, there was a chemistry between conductor and orchestra that led to great performances of the traditional repertoire. Pick up any of their recordings, still available at ArkivMusic if nowhere else, and listen for yourself. They are pretty much all first-class and bear testament to a vital relationship.

Levine had that relationship with the BSO, but there was still an eat-your-vegetables quality to the work that the other conductors got around by championing more accessible contemporary composers, such as John Adams, Nicholas Maw and Magnus Lindberg. Each of those conductors also loved more tonal 20th century composers like Shostakovich, whom Levine pretty much despised.

It was gratifying to see that Lindberg is one of Nelsons’ favorite contemporary composers. But if his upcoming concerts with the BSO are any indication, Nelsons’ taste seems pretty conservative. He’ll be conducting Verdi’s Requiem July 27 at Tanglewood. He’ll also be on the podium next season at Symphony Hall (though he doesn’t officially begin till the one after that) with a program of Wagner, Mozart and Brahms in October and a concert performance of Strauss’s “Salome” in March of 2014.

Classical music has gone from a prime-time network television event to an increasingly elitist endeavor. How do you change that?

Now that he’s got the gig, let’s hope he joins the 20th century, never mind the 21st. (OK, “Salome” was first performed in 1905, but you know what I mean.)

But even that isn’t the issue anymore. Classical music is increasingly marginalized every year. In the lifetime of many of you who are reading this, it has gone from a prime-time network television event to an increasingly elitist endeavor. In sports terms it has gone from pro basketball to polo.

And yet those of us who love it know that it has as much to say about the world we live in as any other musical form — more. Of all the things that Nelsons needs to accomplish, it’s changing the perception of classical music.

So how do you change that perception without becoming the Pops? You acknowledge all that’s been said thus far — passionate playing, smart repertoire with an eclectic choice of contemporary music, being a part of the community, advocating for musical education in the schools and/or stepping in to fill the breech.

But there’s one other thing and that’s making Symphony Hall accessible to everyone, not just the elite — making it a cool place to go. Other orchestras have taken steps in that direction — the LA Philharmonic with Salonen’s successor, Gustavo Dudamel; the New York Philharmonic with Alan Gilbert.

Let’s add the BSO with Andris Nelsons to that list. Symphony Hall, like just about every theater in town, is built as a fortress to keep the riffraff out. Tear down this wall, Mr. Gorba — sorry — Mr. Nelsons. You’re a Michael Jackson fan.

So let’s open things up. Let’s rock.

More: Andris Nelsons appointed

Meet Andris Nelsons — On Video

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  • Kathy

    Does Symphony Hall have to rock? And is that the mission of Andris Nelsons? He’s young, so my guess is that fact and his dynamism as a conductor, will bring more young people in (those under 65)! Classical music takes patience and time to appreciate. Does the younger generation have the attention span to discover how wonderful it is? I sure hope so.

    • http://www.facebook.com/ed.siegel.33 Ed Siegel

      Well, I’m using ‘rock’ metaphorically. The New York Phil rocked with Lenny, the LA with Salonen, the Berlin with Rattle, etc.

  • http://twitter.com/will02118 Bill

    First, the notion that the BSO plays only to the elite is untenable. You see too many high school kids, sneakers and sweat shirts, whatever. Majority suburban, white, 65+….sure. But there’s both younger attendees and plenty of all ages who are open to new and different music already. Nelsons has work to do to fill the empty seas and develop a younger audience, but he’s not starting quite at zero.
    He won’t be able to do it alone.The complacent, timid marketers at the BSO need to get inspired or make room for people who can be inspired and inspire along with the Music Director.
    The models cited are odd. Dudamel is mostly showmanship and remains untested once the glow wears off. Gilbert is a great programmer who doesn’t seem able deliver. He certainly failed in his BSO guest spot this year. San Francisco is a good model, also St. Louis, and don’t miss the shake up in Seattle with Morlot. There’s lot going on out there!

  • dancingnancy

    Seiji rocked in his day. You’re probably too young to remember.

    • http://www.facebook.com/ed.siegel.33 Ed Siegel

      Seiji dressed like a rocker, but I don’t think his programming was terribly imaginative. I wasn’t a big fan.

  • Carlaudia

    At last!

    Finally … the BSO has thrown off its cloak of Boston staidness and made the adventurous and inspired choice for a younger and potentially more locally committed musical leader who can reinvigorate the classical music scene in Boston, the Berkshires, and beyond. Please, Maestro … learn to love Boston, be a part of its musical and urban scene, and exercise the leadership that is needed to bring vibrancy and mission to the pursuit of orchestral music that once was so closely associated with the BSO.

  • Lauren

    Seiji Ozawa never rocked Symphony Hall ? is this a joke ? How old are you to say that kind of stupid things ! He surely made it rock like noone , he will remain one of our greatest music memories and he knew how to raise an audience! Andris Nelsons is a great choice but please do not erase too quickly the amazing artists whom built the reputation of the BSO