Having just completed two months of music-making and mentoring at Tanglewood, their summer home in Western Massachusetts, you’d think the musicians of the Boston Symphony Orchestra would be in line for a well-deserved break. Not so, for they arrive in the UK this weekend to begin a 12-date European tour, starting with two performances at the BBC Proms (Prom 67, Sunday 2 September and Prom 69, Monday 3 September).
With them every step of the way is music director Andris Nelsons, whose towering presence on the podium in Boston has been keenly felt, and much-lauded, since he took on the role in 2013. If that weren’t enough, the Latvian conductor is just months into his new role as music director of Leipzig’s Gewandhausorchester. So you could forgive him for perhaps being a little weary, but it is a wide-eyed and relaxed Nelsons we met at Tanglewood last week. They will have that break eventually he tells me, ‘we’ve three concerts here to do, then the tour… and then a holiday!’
It’s quite a tour coming up, which stop are you looking forward to most?
Oh every bit, it’s a wonderful tour! We’re starting with London, of course the Albert Hall is fantastic, then we go to Hamburg, Berlin, Leipzig, Vienna, Lucerne, Paris, Amsterdam…
How important is touring for you and the orchestra?
I see a tour as a very important part of a journey with an orchestra. I think for me personally it gives an important addition to the quality. I find that touring can go either the wrong way – which is if it becomes very routine, and if people are tired and playing again and again – or it can go the other way, when the orchestra mobilises. Because of performing in different places, they actually collect that strength of tradition. I think you hear so many great things which you can hear only on a tour.
Do different venues affect how the orchestra performs?
Playing in different halls, yes, but you have to keep your identity and this is an orchestra which cares about its sound. Being on different stages together becomes so enjoined with the wonderful music-making that the tour fulfils for each musician. Then coming home is another joy. It’s another moment that gives satisfaction.
You’re taking a bit of Bernstein with you on the tour. Why did you choose his Serenade specifically?
I have always had a very close musical relationship with Baiba Skride, who is our soloist. We studied at the same school in Riga together, and so we have played a lot of repertoire over the years, but we never played the Bernstein Serenade.
I feel that as a piece either you love it and believe it, and it speaks to you very strongly, or you don’t understand it, exaggerate it and then it might not speak the way it should. Somehow in her playing I find there is so much pure music-making, without any unnecessary exaggerations or mannerisms, and I think Bernstein’s soul and his heart is in it.
He really was one of the most important conductors of the orchestra. He was a personality, but he was also somehow pure. He wasn’t playing it to be somebody different and I think the Serenade is very sweet. Of course, there are sad moments, but you feel Bernstein’s hug, you know? A musical hug… And the way she plays it with the orchestra – I’m really happy to be taking it on the tour.
And you’re playing Mahler and Shostakovich…
Mahler is also very special for me with this orchestra because the first piece we did together was Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, which I stepped in to conduct. So that’s the composer through whom I learned about and met the orchestra. Every note in Mahler you have to give 100 per cent. He's not a composer where you can save it at some moments and maybe give 120 per cent in other places. I think you have to burn yourself, Mahler requires it. The orchestra have the tradition and intensity of the sound which carries the performance.
Shostakovich is another programme, and of course with Shostakovich we have a wonderful journey with Deutsche Grammophon, recording all the symphonies; so I’m pleased to take Shostakovich. Basically on each tour we want to take one Symphony; when we were in Japan we toured with the Eleventh. This was also the tradition of Serge Koussevitzky, and the orchestra have a great understanding of this music.
Of course Shostakovich and Mahler link; this Shostakovich was inspired very much by Mahler. I think all this repertoire is very much in the DNA of the orchestra and, together with my love for the music, that’s why we have it on the tour. It’s very interesting that we still have one player in the second violins who played the premiere of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony!
And of course Boston isn’t your only orchestra now…
Having two orchestras with such a strong DNA, I’m really in a dream. I understand how important the identity of each orchestra is, and although music is a very universal language, each of the orchestras – particularly these great orchestras – has its own accent, its own way of speaking that language. Keeping that tradition is so important.
Do the differences between them influence the way you conduct?
It changes how I work with each orchestra, yes. In one sense it is a national, global language where one gesture means the same in one continent as it does in another. Of course as a conductor that’s your language, your technique – your gestures, your face, the energy, or charisma. It’s like so many languages; I mean you look to the Baltic states, it’s a small territory relatively speaking, and there are so many countries and each has different languages. Some of these countries have nothing to do with each other, like Latvian is nothing to do with Estonian, or Russian, or Lithuanian, yet they’re so close and they understand each other’s lifestyles and traditions. But they’re also so different and they want to cherish their identity and keep that.
In the orchestra world I find it’s the same; there’s a universal understanding, but there is a very individual, personal approach – the taste, the colour, the aftertaste. I’m relatively young, but somehow the idea of this I’m very much attracted to.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra is on tour from Sunday 2 September till Monday 17 September. Visit the orchestra’s website for full details.