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Ionarts-at-Large: The Courtship of Andris Nelsons

As Andris Nelsons led the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in two concerts on Thursday and Friday, two impressions were paramount: “Isn’t it a little early for a courtship concert?” And “the match looks mighty fine”. The concert with the young (32) Latvian conductor and Mariss Jansons protégé, currently the music director of the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, had all the hallmarks of a mating ritual: The first half was given over to Charles Ives (“The Unanswered Question”), John Adams (“Slonimsky’s Earbox”), and Igor Stravinsky (“Le chant du rossignol”) next to which Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony in the second half looked a little out of place. It’s as if the conductor wanted to show (or be shown), all in one concert, that he can not only program smartly but also do justice to warhorses.

The presence of HD cameras in every corner of the crammed Herkulessaal looked conspicuously like Bavarian Radio showing off some of the inherent advantages of a radio orchestra over, oh, say, a city philharmonic: We’ll do live broadcasts of your concerts and we’ll get you a DVD of the event for Christmas. In the end, I wouldn’t have been half surprised if they had publically promised him a new concert hall on top of it (something Jansons works hard on, given the inadequacy of the status quo of quasi BRSO-homelessness).

In terms of programming, the high hopes I had for this concert—considering Nelsons among the most promising conductors out there—were fulfilled even before a note was played. Ives, Adams, and Stravinsky don’t just give the ear something it isn’t wont to hear very often*, they all sharpen our ears for musical interrelations. In Ives a voice (trumpet) repeatedly utters a question into the wistful void—perhaps time itself— represented by the hauntingly simple, ever unchanging melody of triads that the string section provides as a shimmering backdrop. Trumpet and strings are ideally placed off stage. In the Herkulessaal that meant behind the stage (trumpet) and all the way across the hall, in the foyer, bleeding into the auditorium from behind the audience, with Nelsons solidly out of sigh. On stage are merely four flutes (alternatively woodwinds), and they answer the trumpet. Gently first (never timid), but increasingly agitated and frustrated over the futility of their answers, as the trumpet merely keeps repeating it’s naively phrased question, it’s innocent incomprehension. “…but why??” There are many answers, of course, but none can make the question go away.

Adams’ “Earbox” is like a shot in the arm after that; incidentally a work sounding much more like Stravinsky than Philip Glass. Stampeding with wild sameness, twice as long as Ives and probably ten times as many notes, it eventually ends as abruptly as it began, as if any prolonging of the relentless rambunctiousness couldn’t add anything anymore that hadn’t already been said. The opening of “Earbox” foreshadowed (in the performance timeline, that is) “Rossignol”, or more to the point: quotes it. Without knowing the real timeline it’d be near-impossible to hear who quotes whom, though, since the 80 years difference between the Adams (1996) and the Stravinsky (1917) are all but inaudible… just as it isn’t in the least obvious that the Ives (1906) should be the oldest piece of the lot.

The Stravinsky, essentially the orchestral suite from the last two acts of Stravinsky’s 1914 opera “Le rossignol” offered, as all that had come before, precision and well defined, snappy edges—with the principals (the various woodwinds and especially the flute and the first violin) excelling. Just as the Adams refers to that Nightingale (specifically and generally), the end of Stravinsky—trumpet over repetitive string figures harks back to Ives and the first half thus comes full circle.

Would Nelsons, who has many of the same features as his mentor (the attention to detail, unwillingness to neglect transparency even at higher decibels, but with a healthy dash of excitement added to it all), make something special of Dvořák’s standard? I can’t deny that I’d rather have seen a Rubbra symphony or a Tveitt concerto in place of “From the New World” (and not just because I have a an obscurity-fetish), but Nelsons is also one of the few conductors from whom I would actually expect something special even in the most standard repertoire. I think immediately of his recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, where it is his contribution (despite his excellent soloist) that particularly raised my eyebrows. (One of my favorite recordings of the work and conveniently coupled with an ingenious Berg Concerto.)

Much of that hope was fulfilled by Nelsons crisp, loud but not too overbearing first movement, seamless and fast and with more than a whiff of Wagner coming from the climaxes and the string figures. The nicely accentuated, tastefully exaggerated performance—pianissimos hanging by a strand in the slow movement; the triangle’s ‘wakeup ring’ in the third movement feverish; the fourth movement with exalted exclamation points—hit all the right buttons with the audience. As if they were in on the deal of making mini-Jansons the successor of mentor-Jansons in the Bavarian capital, they showered Nelsons with lots of ovational love and the orchestra beamed to the last member.

* Incidentally the Munich Philharmonic had just performed the Ives in a concert this summe; under conductor Markus Stenz, with Leila Josefowicz performing the Adès Violin Concerto, and also with Dvořák’s Ninth in the second half.

Rehearsal pictures courtesy © BR Klassik.

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