Maestro calls Tanglewood “a paradise of music making”
Photographs by John Stanmeyer
Andris Nelsons maneuvers the stretch golf cart along the concrete paths of the expansive property, passing music students and fellows whose dialogues are momentarily distracted by this vehicle moving at quite a clip. Those who recognize Nelsons smile, stepping aside to clear the path. Close by, a sound check is happening for the night’s performance, and grounds people are tidying up from the previous day’s doings. Behind the wheel, taking this all in, the 38-year-old Grammy-winning maestro is focused on his next destination, Seiji Ozawa Hall. “You’re getting better with your driving,” says one passenger, holding firmly to the side rail. Nelsons smiles.
A short while earlier, casually dressed in a dark, tie-dye T-shirt, slacks, and Nike running shoes, Nelsons had been doing scales and other warmups on his trumpet, inside the Press Porch. This, on the heels of playing in public for the first time in 16 years, right here at Tanglewood. Eventually, Nelsons emerges, the Bach Stradivarius in hand. “Have you been waiting long? I am so sorry,” he says in a distinctive Eastern European accent. He leads me into the building and sits back on a cushioned chair with an inviting sense of casualness.
His thoughts seem to overtake his responses: at times he trails off in mid-sentence, only to start another one, as if trying to catch up. His third season in Boston completed, he has immersed himself in summer at Tanglewood—he is teaching a class on conducting, and his performances in August continue to be dynamic and varied: John Williams’s Film Night (August 19), the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra (August 20), opera and song with (wife) Kristine Opolais (August 26), and Ives and Beethoven (August 27). Nelsons is thrilled about the construction of Tanglewood’s new four-building complex, which begins after the summer run. His passion and connectivity to the music drive our conversation.
What is it about Tanglewood that makes it so special?
The uniqueness of this place, I suppose, is from a combination of things. Of course, it’s a summer place of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. But maybe the central thing, even of the idea of Tanglewood, is the education part. These great people sharing their knowledge, teaching, and playing are very special. That only happens here at Tanglewood. It shows that the music is about sharing and it’s, of course, about the quality, but it’s the constant searching and the constant excitement of making music. It’s alive. That’s the only reason for making music is to be alive.
Do you look forward to going to the Berkshires?
Absolutely. We have this winter season in Boston and, of course, it’s fantastic—one of the best concert halls, and a great city, and great audience. But when the season finishes, everyone is looking forward to coming back to the summer place.
The nature, the weather, and the friendly, humanistic atmosphere. Here, it’s the real thing. It shows how close we are to each other. Even people who don’t understand music—music is close to everyone. The musicians just say: Please, give me your hand, and we will take you on a journey.
Have you experienced this elsewhere?
No, not the combination or variety of things. Leonard Bernstein was in love with this place. The great professionals and the genius musicians sharing and being next to the young students and also being next to the audience—they feel the real essence of music, what it actually brings. The people who come for the first time to a concert at Tanglewood, I’m sure they experience something special, including the nature and the stage and the music. And I’m sure this invites people to be more interested in the music and to explore it more.
Has this changed you?
I just found this affirming to me about what I feel music is and what sharing is and also the mission of the conductor is. It’s communication. It’s not just about playing the notes and then disappearing. It’s what’s between the notes, what’s the message. This place is about that. I feel extremely comfortable and happy.
What do you tell people who have never been?
You should come. You will be in love with this place. If it was only Boston Symphony without the education part, it still would be a nice festival, but those festivals you can find. The combination of the music performance and the students playing and the big giants, genius artists, playing at the same time, all together. One night there’s a rock concert, and then the next morning there’s a rehearsal of a Wagner opera, and during the day there’s a few cello concerts. It’s a paradise of music-making for everyone.
Is there a music composition that connects you with here?
My background is from Europe, so there are pieces that are not even associated with America, but maybe the pieces are so much with nature and the influence of nature. Even if you take Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony Pastoral or Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, which there are no Alps here, but it’s still nature. Or Mahler’s First Symphony. There are so many. For composers, I’m sure for everyone, the nature is one of the sources of inspiration.
Is there anything that is challenging for you here?
It can’t all be paradise, can it? A challenge can be for some people, and that same challenge for other people can be a great excitement. Some people love rain. For some people, it can be a challenge. Also, this new building that is going to start in August. This is very exciting. It shows continuity, thanks to these great people who see the importance of investing in such a thing. It’s past, present, and future. Maybe we should renovate the theater to make more opera. Then you have everything.
In the three years you’ve been with the BSO, how have you changed or grown?
It feels like the time is running very fast, and it feels much longer. The orchestra and I, as we get to know each other, we get better, and we’re getting closer, and therefore we share deeper feelings about music. Music is such a subjective, mystical, and universal art. So, we have reached this communication level through music in a very beautiful and sensitive way. For me, it’s always important to have this feeling of teamwork. The conductor is not a person who is standing out or controlling all things. A conductor is the person who has the responsibilities, but we are in the same boat together. So, there’s a storm, the orchestra is in a boat, but you’re conducting and you’re not in there. I don’t agree. You should be there. You should be experiencing the storm together.
You are in the midst of your busiest season ever at Tanglewood. It’s the most varied and the most significant commitment. Is it because you must do that or because you want to?
It is because I enjoy this and I want to show that’s what Tanglewood is all about. It is the variety of things. I’m so honored to share the pop concert, the Film Night With John Williams conducting, and then I play trumpet in one piece from his wonderful music of Lincoln. It’s a trumpet solo.
You are the “special guest trumpet soloist” in that Lincoln piece on August 19?
Yes, it’s four minutes, and then I need to conduct. I’m scared because it’s a great honor. I’ve been taking lessons with Håkan Hardenberger, the greatest trumpeter, and also BSO principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs. I’m also starting to teach this season, and I’m conducting for fellows.
Why now the trumpet?
Subconsciously, I wanted to become a conductor when I was five years old. It was after experiencing an opera, Tannhäuser, Wagner’s opera, in Riga. I was not just shocked but infected by the power of music and the mysticism. Like the conductor, I wanted to be involved in music the way he is because I thought it is like painting. Then I played the piano at six, then I started playing trumpet.
How old were you when you began playing trumpet?
Eleven. And then I started training in singing from 12. Before then, I was in the boys chorus. But the conducting thing was somewhere in my mind. And then I studied early conducting at 15. Then I got my first opportunity. My conducting teacher was also conducting the high-school orchestra, and one day he didn’t come to rehearsal. I stood up and said, Let’s rehearse. I’m normally a shy person, I felt so nervous, but nervous in a very exciting way. I felt I could express my feelings of music the best through conducting.
So, you’re pretty good at the trumpet?
I was okay; I got the opportunity to conduct in the [Latvian National Opera], and then I somehow conducted and they offered me music director of the opera. Then I decided I can’t play and be a music director at the same time. So, I stopped trumpet at 22 years old. I gave my instrument away and started conducting. Then two summers ago, Hardenberger and Rolfs and all the group from Boston said they had something to give to me. All of them trumpeters, and Bob Malone, he’s a trumpet maker—they gave me a present, a trumpet. I was so surprised. I hadn’t played a note in 16 years. Nothing. Then I took the trumpet, and the memories came back. I held the trumpet to my mouth, and I could hardly play a note. Since that moment, I started to practice. It became almost like a hobby. My embouchure was gone, but I just had fun playing again. And it was like yoga, relaxation. I enjoy being in contact with the instrument, with breathing, and with the colleagues.
What is your vision as conductor of the BSO?
This is one of the best offices in the world. It has a fantastic history and a fantastic tradition and amazing musicians. It’s a dream work every day, what I do. My dream is to keep this curiosity of music making like a child, this freshness and humanity and excitement which I have for each concert. Of course, under all that is a lot of work and professionalism, but I think our duty and our task and our mission not only as a conductor but as a musician, is to share that to the audience and in order to be fully satisfied, you should give not only your professionality but also your heart. I’m so proud of the orchestra, Deutsche Grammophon recording and going on tours, playing at Tanglewood and Boston, that’s all important and it’s all happening. But the most important is how it’s happening—that we don’t lose the curiosity and the certain naïveness of music making. Or simply giving our heart to the music. If we do lose that, in my opinion, it’s not real music making.
Where do you find the most happiness?
When I see my daughter and I experience as we all do with our children, the love you give to your children, you know, unegoistic love. I think this is, in the end, the most important thing in life. It’s this kind of unegoistic caring about things, generally, and it’s so much also in music. The questions about humanity and the qualities of humanity is so much in music, and I think it helps that to perform and to go deeper into music is a calming and healing process.
Do you go out when you’re in the Berkshires?
I spend most of the day here at Tanglewood. Sometimes I go to restaurants. We had a nice time, after the brass concert, we had a nice social time together at one of the houses where Hardenberger stays, he was cooking for us. Of course, I have to make sure I’m prepared for all things as a conductor. It is my mission. We are still professional musicians, and with all this excitement, we still need to be in our top form.
Have you ever swum in a lake?
In Latvia, there are many lakes, and I used to swim all the time. I’m now a bit afraid of water, so I don’t swim. But I like to walk. I was near the lake and it was beautiful. I don’t drive, but I drive the golf cart and just enjoy the wind coming to me.