There were banners across the city, a welcoming party of hundreds in Symphony Hall, and a ceremonious 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 Tuesday. He returned the affection, telling the crowd of 850 applauding subscribers, musicians, and board members at Symphony Hall that feels lucky to be in Boston.
“I’m really half in a dream right now. Not half. I’m in a dream. 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.”
“I’m so excited about music and sharing music together,” he continued. “This is the most important thing.
Nelsons signed his contract with the BSO in full view of the crowd and with a pen made of wood from Symphony Hall’s old concert stage, a vivid contract to his predecessor James Levine, who operated without a contract in his final years.
“We’ve reeled him in,” said BSO board chairman Ted Kelly, beaming as he looked up at the audience.
This swirl of public activity marked a departure from the day, 12 years ago, when James Levine was announced as the BSO’s new leader. Back then, 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 chair 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 this summer he will conduct at Tanglewood next month, 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 little in the way of specifics musically, other than that he will conduct Bruckner and Shostakovich after he takes over. Levine would not conduct those composers. He compared the BSO 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.”
Nelson, 34, might be committed to Boston but he’s also busy with guest conducting spots and his current fulltime gig as music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. So he flew into Boston late Monday night, conducted interviews, and was then set to fly back to England late Tuesday night to rehearse in Birmingham.
The schedule Tuesday didn’t leave even a moment for a nap.
Wearing a blue sportcoat, white shirt open at the neck and black slacks, Nelsons entered Symphony Hall just after 11 a.m. to the applause of the more than 850 subscribers, musicians and board members who had come to watch him sign his contract.
“I’m always nervous when I conduct but not this nervous,” he said, smiling.
When he was done signing, Nelsons sat in a soft chair next to BSO managing director Mark Volpe and took questions from the audience.
The questions were big and small, seeking his thoughts on how to get more people to listen to classical music to a request from one man to help track down an obscure Bruckner recording Nelsons made with the City of Birmingham Symphony.
When asked about his first experience leading the BSO—Nelsons had to stand in for the injured Levine in 2011 – he turned to look at the stage behind him.
“It was a great joy,” he said. “It’s a great piece and I was so nervous and so excited. 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.”
Nelsons is not, like Levine, arguably one of the world’s most famous conductors. But he did show on Tuesday he has something the aging maestro lacked: Boundless energy for doing things outside of music and an eagerness to make a connection with people outside Symphony Hall. He charmed longtime subscribers with his personality.
Leslie Warshaw, a subscriber for more than 45 years, said Tuesday’s festivities stood in contrast to when Levine arrived.
“Everybody was so awed and wondering, ‘how did we get Levine?’” she said. “ It was odd. This is different. It’s exciting, it’s young, it’s like going to the opening of a new restaurant. 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. He really is a breath of fresh air.”
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. “When Seiji first came, everybody saw it as a turning point. 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 91, Nelsons and 11-player BSO brass ensemble performed “The Great Gate of Kiev,” a movement from Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
And then, after being shuffled into a car, the now-sweaty Nelsons headed to Fenway for one other task Levine never tried: Throwing out the first pitch at Fenway. The new maestro did not take the ceremonious task lightly.
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 for Nelsons’s attempt.
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 while chatting with concertmaster Malcolm Lowe.
Lowe cautioned the new music director on the mound.
“It’s a big hill and be careful when you step down,” he said.
“I don’t think they put him on the mound,” correctly Volpe.