The New York Times, SEPT. 28, 2014
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.

As Mr. 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.

Though 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.

Mr. 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 challenging “Liebestod.”

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 conducting spouse.

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 essentially adrift.

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.

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