LENOX, United States: As a summer breeze blew, Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Andris Nelsons summoned the sense of an opening to heaven as voices from the giant choir rattled the open-air theater.
Nelsons had chosen Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, one of the biggest and most involved works of the classical repertoire, to celebrate Saturday’s 75th anniversary of Tanglewood, the orchestra’s annual summer home and music school in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts.
The often-controversial “Symphony of a Thousand” — which at Tanglewood involved closer to 330 musicians, as is typical for the work — highlights the tension between the religious and the secular, starting with a Christian hymn before turning to Goethe’s Faust and his eventual redemption.
For Nelsons, a rising young star in the conducting world who started at the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2014 and whose contract was recently extended, such big ideas are paramount in classical music — and orchestras can bring them to a wider audience.
“I think in classical music, of course tradition is so important, but in the end the music is always composed in order to share and express what you feel about the world,” said the energetic and affable Nelsons, who enjoys both discussing the philosophical underpinnings of symphonies and cruising his golf cart around the 85-hectare (210-acre) wooded Tanglewood estate.
Classical music “is not a museum only,” the 36-year-old Latvian told AFP.
Under Nelsons, Boston has joined four other leading orchestras in launching Google’s Classical Live program which features exclusive recordings for streaming or download.
“Young audiences are more attracted to computers,” he said. “There is nothing wrong if it is used in the right way.
“It doesn’t make classical music cheaper or less important. Because in the end,” he said, the music brings “an emotional satisfaction. It encourages thinking more about things.”
Passion for Shostakovich
Despite his support for modern technology, Nelsons has shown a preference in his first year in Boston for pursuing the canon of great composers, although he is quick to add that he is also interested in contemporary pieces.
Nelsons, who himself goes online sparingly and estimates he owns 5,000 CDs, has formed a partnership with Deutsche Grammophon for the orchestra to record the work of Shostakovich.
Nelsons, raised in the final days of the Soviet Union, opened the series by exploring Shostakovich’s tortured relationship with Stalin through “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” his opera denounced by state mouthpiece Pravda, and Symphony No. 10, which the composer premiered shortly after the dictator died in 1953.
The CD, “Shostakovich Under Stalin’s Shadow,” was named recording of the month by Gramophone, often considered the most prestigious publication in classical music.
Nelsons extolled Shostakovich’s value on artistic merit alone, but was struck by the contemporary significance of his work.
“Who would have thought we will listen to Shostakovich’s music in a context of dictatorship and war, in the circumstances it was composed?” he said.
“Things are happening in a different way and maybe not in the same country, but the evil in the world is always present” he said.
First Europe tour in years
The Boston Symphony Orchestra will play Shostakovich’s No. 10 as well as Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 — a more pessimistic work than No. 8 — on a 12-concert European tour that starts on August 22 at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
Yo-Yo Ma, among the world’s best-known cellists, will join the orchestra for several performances, including at the new Philharmonie de Paris on September 3 for Strauss’s “Don Quixote.”
Nelsons said it was critical for the 134-year-old orchestra to preserve its reputation through touring. It has not traveled to Europe since 2007 due to the health problems of Nelsons’s predecessor James Levine, who left the orchestra in 2011.
Less than a year into Nelsons’s tenure, Boston extended his contract until at least 2022, with automatic renewal afterward unless otherwise decided.
Nelsons — who had been speculated as a contender for the Berlin Philharmonic, one of the top jobs in classical music — will now have ample time to shape the Boston Symphony Orchestra, whose past music directors have included Russian modernist composer Serge Koussevitzky and intense Japanese maestro Seiji Ozawa.
Nelsons said the extension confirmed his “great musical and human chemistry” with the Boston musicians.
“For me, this has always been very important,” he said. “If I would feel that half of the orchestra openly hates me, and they would offer to prolong it to ’40, I wouldn’t be able to do it.”