Andris Nelsons at the Boston Symphony Orchestra

Inaugural Concert as Music Director

By: - Sep 30, 2014

Andris Nelsons’ Inaugural Concert
Boston Symphony Hall
Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014
Andris Nelsons, conductor|
Kristine Opolais, soprano soloist
Jonas Kaufmann, tenor soloist
A program of orchestral and vocal selections from operas by Richard Wagner and the Italian verismo repertory, concluding with Ottorino Respighi’s tone poem, “Pines of Rome”

Gala performances for opening nights of performing arts organizations are seldom heavyweight affairs. Sometimes, they are little more than fluff, a little music or dance to entertain the opening night revelers after they’ve tossed back a few drinks and packed in a heavy dinner.

The gala performance that opened the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 134th season largely followed that pattern, without the fluff – or the steak and potatoes. (Attendees were invited to partake of a buffet of charcuterie and crudités and a glass of wine.) There was no Bruckner symphony or neglected twelve-tone miniature. Elliott Carter seems to have left the building, at least for now, with the previous music director, James Levine.

But it was an opening night of more than normal festivity. It was a heavyweight experience for those who paid attention, and it seemed that everyone in the sold-out hall was hip to what was going on – and that they approved. It was the first night that Andris Nelsons, the 35-year old Latvian boy wonder, conducted the orchestra as it new music director, only the fifteenth - and the youngest - in a line that goes back to 1881. You could feel the excitement building in the hallowed auditorium as the hour of the concert approached. And you could feel the love when Nelsons, who seems to have shed some pounds, walked onto the stage and mounted the flower-bedecked podium. He got a standing O even before he lifted the baton. The assembled are looking for a savior for the hallowed institution, which has been on wobbly legs after the near-fiasco of James Levine’s directorship, and Nelsons appears to be the best hope for a new beginning.

Nelsons has been criticized, somewhat justly, for his focus on the traditional repertoire and apparent lack of interest in new and unusual music. (Although if you look carefully through this season’s schedule, you’ll find enough new and unusual fare.) But the program he put together for this important opening night was, if traditional, different from the ordinary. It focused on opera, never a priority for the prime music organization in Boston, and not scheduled to play a major role in Nelsons’ programming in this, his first season. (Charles Dutoit will conduct Syzmanowski’s Polish rarity “King Roger” in two performances in March.) The Wagner orchestral pieces from “Tannhäuser” and “Tristan und Isolde” from the concert’s first half have been played often enough - Wagner was arguably opera’s greatest composer of orchestral music. But the two vocal selections from “Lohengrin” (“In fernem land”) and “Tristan” (Isolde’s “Liebestod”) have been rarely performed by the orchestra.

The Italian selections have been even greater strangers to Symphony Hall. The last time Mascagni, who was represented in the program by a tenor aria from “Cavalleria rusticana” (“Mamma, quel vino è generoso”) and its famous “Intermezzo,” was heard here was in 1891. Puccini, who dominated the Italian opera selections – an originally scheduled soprano aria by Alfredo Catalani, the insinuating “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana” from “La Wally,” made famous by the film “Diva,” was scrapped for another Puccini, the famous “Un bel di” from “Madama Butterfly” - has been better represented, but the duet on the program from “Manon Lescaut” (“Tu, tu, amore? Tu?”) was never previously performed. Symphony Hall is a temple dedicated to Beethoven, after all, his name alone appearing in a gold medallion at the top of the proscenium, a celebration of his genius and a rebuke to all those who don’t measure up to his standards, which for the BSO included both Mascagni and Puccini, not to mention Catalani.

What made the concert especially celebratory for some – that would include me – were the vocal soloists. The German Jonas Kaufmann, young and handsome in a dark, slightly exotic manner, is the hottest tenor in the world at the moment, and he was making his Boston premiere in this concert. (For those who care about such matters, he has cut off his tousled, romantic locks.) An elegant singer who seems to be singing whatever he takes on as if it were not only its premiere but was composed especially for him, he is equally adept at the German, Italian and French repertory. In recent seasons he has triumphed in opera houses around in the world in Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” Verdi’s “Don Carlo” and Massenet’s “Werther.” When was the last time a singer demonstrated such range? Kaufmann seems to be modeling himself on Placido Domingo, and since he has a reputation for husbanding his resources judiciously, he might enjoy a career as long and outstanding as the veteran Spaniard.

Not to slight his collaborators, especially Nelsons, Kaufmann generated the greatest heat of the evening. He started “In fernem land” as if it were a whisper, spinning out a gossamer pianissimo over the large orchestra. If you hadn’t heard him sing it before – I recommend his La Scala performance on Youtube – you’d think that his voice was maybe too small to fill such a large auditorium as Symphony Hall. But he is merely beginning to tell the story of who he is and what is his name, as Wagner intended, without histrionics. Kaufmann is a master of dynamics, capable of both the most precious pianissimi and the most stalwart fortissimi. In “In fernem land,” he demonstrated his ability to modulate his volume to the requirements of the text. And as his voice rose in volume toward the conclusion of the aria, you could feel the audience sit up at attention, attuned to the drama inherent in his declamation. A man sitting near me shouted out “Bravo” a moment too soon, alas – Nelsons hadn’t rested his baton – but he expressed what everyone in the hall was feeling.

Kaufmann sings his native German with rare expressivity, but he isn’t a true heldentenor – his voice can dip into almost baritonal range as he did when it was necessary in the aria from “Lohengrin.”

Heldentenors are rare and treasured, but they’re locked into singing Wagner. The fact that Kaufmann’s tenor can be closer to the earth allows him to sing with equal commitment a role like the Sicilian soldier Turiddu from “Cavalleria rusticana.” This is no heroic tenor singing of the Holy Grail and the knights anointed to find it. This is a man with a complicated love life who has compromised two women, one with a vengeful husband. Having drunk too much wine in a tavern run by his mother, Turiddu sings an impassioned aria before he goes out to duel with the man whose wife he has seduced. Kaufmann sang the verismo aria with melting romanticism, stopping just short of allowing the voice to break like the classic verismo hams of the past. His restraint, which did not limit his passion, and the slight hint of intoxication in his portrayal, drove the audience to the edge of frenzy. I half expected a crowd to mob the stage, but this is Boston after all, and decorum prevailed.

I wish I could be so enthusiastic about Kristrine Opolais’s solos, especially since she is the wife of the maestro, Andris Nelsons. She and he made a major miscalculation having her sing Isolde’s “Liebestod” in her first appearance on a Boston stage. The “Liebestod” is not for novices, and Opolais is not known for her Wagner. It was not reassuring that she depended on the score propped on a music stand. This is music any singer who essays should know by heart. In any case, her singing was forced, effortful and not beautiful. Perhaps she wants to move into the Wagnerian repertoire from her more comfortable perch with Puccini, but the BSO gala celebrating her husband was not the appropriate time or place for her rehearsal.

After the intermission, when she moved into the Puccini literature, the lovely singer I had watched on Youtube, made a much stronger impression. “Un bel di” from “Madama Butterfly,” poor Cio-Cio San’s delusional fantasy of the cad Pinkerton returning to her and their child, is Opolais’s calling card. Although her singing here was not as assured as it was in a triumphant performance at Covent Garden in London – there was a wobble to her voice at the beginning – it was warm and lyrical in the best of the Italian tradition.

In her two duets with Kaufmann, both by Puccini, one an unscheduled encore – a rarity I am told at Symphony Hall – Opolais really showed her mettle. In the dramatic scene from “Manon Lescaut,” Puccini’s first big hit, when the two lovers, Manon and des Grieux, rekindle their romance, both Opolais and Kaufmann enacted their roles despite the constraints of a concert performance. They showed a remarkable rapport dramatically and their voices blended beautifully. At the end they kissed, and during the applause, there was group hug between the two soloists and the conductor.

The encore, which came before the Respighi, was “O Soave fanciulla” from the conclusion of the first act of Puccini’s “La Boheme,” justifiably the most popular work in the opera repertory. Once again, Kaufmann showed his skill at floating out exquisite pianissimi, and if Opolais didn’t quite hit her final high note, who, at that point, was really listening?

Of course, the evening was a celebration of Nelsons, and he did not disappoint. Nelsons offered no radical or even fresh interpretations of the music he conducted. He showed himself to be a young musician, respectful of the past, playing an exquisite instrument, the nonpareil Boston Symphony Orchestra, the way the music asked to be played. Perhaps as years pass and their relationship deepens – if he sticks around - fresh and even radical interpretations will be offered, but as a first date, you couldn’t ask for anything better. In fact, his performance reminded me of the extraordinary perfectionism of the BSO’s conductor emeritus, the distinguished Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink. The difference is that Haitink, who is in his mid-80s, has had decades to refine his art. Nelsons has achieved something similar in only a relatively young career.

Nelsons’ reading of the “Tannhäuser” overture was exquisitely etched, the orchestra following his lead with close attention. It was perhaps a little slow, a little deliberate, but that deliberation allowed all the details to be revealed. A pub song appeared at one point for a moment, there were atmospheric wind sounds and forest murmurs, the Pilgrim’s March recurred with prominence; overall, the overture’s stateliness dominated. One would not be prepared for the orgiastic Venusberg music that immediately followed in the opera (which was not played). One looks forward to hearing Nelsons conduct more Wagner at Symphony Hall.

As a palate cleanser that only makes you want to go out for a gelato, Nelsons revealed Respighi’s “The Pines of Rome” as the brilliant showpiece it was conceived to be. I have to admit that I developed an antipathy to Respighi during my youth when his three Roman tone poems seemed to play endlessly on the radio. In more recent years, I learned that he composed a more varied set of music, including operas that are never performed. It was at a concert of 20th century music at Carnegie Hall several years ago with Anne-Sophie Mutter, who played a Respighi violin sonata, that I realized he could not be so easily dismissed. I am embarrassed to write that I had never heard any of his Roman trilogy performed live. OMG! What was I missing?

Beethoven from above might frown - but maybe not. Respighi fully exploited the orchestra’s potential, and Nelsons drew out all the color, all the drama, all the passion inherent in a shameless showpiece.

Nelsons is a physical conductor, bending forward to apparently draw out sounds from a particular group of instruments, giving little flourishes toward the end of a passage. He shapes phrases with his hands, almost caressing the orchestra. He is the very opposite of some of his European predecessors. He seems to one with the orchestra rather than its antagonist. No wonder it seems to love playing for him. No wonder the audience seems to love sharing it with them. As the concert began, it ended with a standing O.