The life of a world-class orchestra conductor is half Ode To Joy and half Miserere.
The joy part – the thrill of audiences in the finest concert halls around the world applauding you for the great music you making make.
The misery — the endless jet lag, conducting concerts at 1 a.m. according to your body clock, multiple weeks away from your loved ones, an endless series of impersonal hotel rooms, even if they are impersonal five-star hotel rooms, and even the challenge of getting your laundry done as you move nomadically from city to city.
Such has been the challenge faced by Andris Nelsons, the 38-year-old music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. So the question became this: how can he enjoy stability on a personal level while continuing his work as one of the globe’s most revered conductors?
The Boston Symphony Orchestra found a highly satisfactory answer – a new, five-year bond with the acclaimed Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, Germany.
Starting in 2018, Nelsons will become the Kapellmeister or music director of the Gewandhaus, while at the same time maintaining his role at Boston and conducting other programs around the world (including a performance featuring his wife, the great soprano Kristine Opolais, at the Metropolitan Opera in 2019).
To be a music director from a major orchestra means that you are needed in that city about a dozen weeks a year. The rest of the time, you’re typically locked in that joy/miserere conundrum, with a week in, say, London, followed by a week in Paris and a week in Amsterdam and so on. In theory, it’s exciting as can be. In reality, it’s exhausting.
Now, instead of spending many of those non-Boston weeks journeying from city to city, Nelsons will work on a regular basis in Leipzig.
The timing is perfect.
“Leipzig needs Nelsons for concerts in September,” notes Mark Volpe, Managing Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. “That’s when we take a break after summer concerts at Tanglewood. Then they need him in December, when we do Pops, and again in May and June, when we do Spring Pops. Everybody wins.”
The connection between Leipzig and Boston goes back more than a century. Indeed, BSO was primarily a German orchestra with Leipzig roots prior to 1918.
When World War I started, the BSO’s German-born conductor was perceived as being a bit too partial to the Kaiser. He was actually arrested, and the orchestra soon became mostly French and Italian. Today, says Volpe, more than 20 nationalities, from Europe to the United States to Asia, are represented on the BSO stage.
Also, the Gewandhaus and the BSO are both famous for commissioning music from the greatest conductors of the day.
“Leipzig was the orchestra of Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Bach,” says Volpe. “They had more world premieres of Beethoven pieces than any other orchestra.”
The BSO is no slouch when it comes to commissioning music, having ordered up pieces from Boston’s native sons, Aaron Copeland, Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, and of course, Leonard Bernstein (among many other greats).
In addition, Boston’s Symphony Hall takes its design from the former home of the Gewandhaus, which was bombed to smithereens during World War II.
There are differences, of course. The BSO is a private institution, receiving a small amount of government funds and relying primarily on ticket sales and donors. The Gewandhaus is a civic institution, and the chairman of the orchestra is actually the Mayor of Leipzig. While the BSO members are union members, the Leipzig performers are all city employees.
The Boston-Leipzig connection includes chamber music performed in both cities by members of both orchestras. There will also be a link between the Tanglewood Music Center, the world’s preeminent training academy for professional musicians, and Leipzig’s acclaimed Mendelssohn Academy.
Young Gewandhaus-trained musicians will come to Tanglewood as “fellows” or highest-level music students, while Nelsons will bring American conducting fellows to the Mendelssohn Academy.
In addition, the BSO as a whole will visit Leipzig in 2018, and Leipzig will come to Boston’s Symphony Hall in 2019. Individual musicians will enjoy residencies with the counterpart orchestra, not unlike visiting professors on college campuses.
It’s not surprising that Nelsons would be in such high demand, Volpe says.
“I’ve never seen our orchestra happier with its conductor,” he says. “He’s an extremely decent guy on a personal level and an amazing musician. He has phenomenal ears.
“I remember sitting with him while we were recording a huge Shostakovich piece. He remembered the way every note sounded from each of the performances on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and knew exactly which takes he wanted to use in the recording. I’ve never seen a conductor with a memory like that.”
Boston’s relationship with its orchestra is somewhat different from what happens in many other American cities – people in Boston have a sense of ownership of their orchestra as if it were one of their great sports teams.
“Boston’s great that way,” Volpe says. “The BSO is their home team. They love Nelsons, and he clearly loves the city. Our new relationship with Leipzig will make our conductor’s life easier and at the same time will enhance the cultural life of our city in immeasurable ways.”