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Andris Nelsons, magician of Birmingham
Subscribe to RSS Monday, 7th June, 2010
Charismatic young conductor Andris Nelsons is a talent in global demand. Since joining the CBSO in 2007 his reputation has soared ? a thrilling debut at last year's Proms will be followed by the opening night at Bayreuth this year. He talks to Fiona Maddocks about growing up in Riga, Simon Rattle's legacy and Birmingham's bid for UK City of Culture 2013.
Everywhere you turn in Birmingham, banners and hoardings urge you to "Join the Big Conversation". This is the slogan for the city's bid to become UK City of Culture in 2013. The other three finalists in this inaugural competition, now reaching its closing stages, are Norwich, Derry and Sheffield. The award, which promises honour, investment and a boost to tourism but no government funding, will be announced in July.
Each city has drafted in local celebrities to add glamour and profile. One of those for Birmingham is a lean, clean-shaven 31-year-old with high forehead, sharp cheekbones, aqua-clear eyes and a quiet manner.
Something about the way he manages to wear a navy blazer without looking as if he's stepped out of a clubhouse or off a boat, suggests he is not English. He is not, although he speaks it fluently, his third language after Latvian and Russian but before German, or the French and Italian he modestly discounts.
Until three years ago, Andris Nelsons had never even set foot in Britain's second city. Now he is chief conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and one of the sought-after talents in the musical world. He introduced himself to a wider UK audience with his sensational Proms debut last year, in which he conducted the CBSO in white-hot, febrile accounts of Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and John Casken. It was one of the highlights of the season as a capacity Albert Hall, mesmerised by this agile, lanky figure, stamped and cheered, realising they had witnessed an exceptional few hours of music-making. Even the orchestra refused to take a bow, joining in the applause, united in loyal admiration for their new maestro. This season, on 29 July, Nelsons is back at the Proms with Dvorak's New World Symphony. Buy, queue, barter or glue yourself to Radio 3.
In addition, Nelsons has already made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Last month, he stepped in for his friend and mentor, the indisposed Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons, at the Vienna State Opera. Now Claudio Abbado, too, has been taken ill, with illustrious summer commitments in doubt. Nelsons' name is already being whispered as an ideal replacement.
For the moment, however, his heart is in Birmingham, where he took over in 2008. For the players and Nelsons alike it was love at first sight. He was appointed to the job that made Simon Rattle famous after only two private encounters with the orchestra and without the normal fiery baptism of a public concert. "I knew they were looking for a new music director. I knew I was a candidate, so that when I came they would be judging me. I was just myself. We did some rehearsals and a recording and that was it."
The way he expresses it, nothing could be simpler. Yet appointing a new conductor, if not quite as tricky as electing a pope or prime minister, is fraught with hazard. At the CBSO nothing is left to chance. After each concert, players are given forms to fill in asking for their opinion about a new or returning guest conductor. Is this normal practice? One can think of a few agents who would kill to get their hands on those forms.
Stephen Maddock, chief executive of the CBSO, is cheerfully frank: "I've no idea what other orchestras get up to. But we do it every single time ? except with the music director himself! I usually get 40 or 50 replies and then we meet to discuss it. It's not quite an X Factor 'in' or 'out' thing, and, in truth, most conductors are somewhere in the middle. Never mind what the audience thinks, if the musicians give the thumbs down, that conductor will not be asked back."
Negative comments range from "talks too much" to, conversely, "repeats things endlessly without telling us why". British orchestras, accustomed to limited rehearsal time, are famously quick to learn. Too many conductors assume the first rehearsal will be spent sorting out technical difficulties only to find there are none. Then they flounder and waste time.
"Andris understood that straight away," Maddock says. "It was obvious from the start that he was the right choice." Another British orchestra was also eyeing up Nelsons at the time, so the CBSO had to act fast. The young Latvian arrived in Birmingham on 31 August 2007; the following day he stood in front of the orchestra for the first time. He was offered the job the same week, on 4 September, which must be a record. The choice was canny. His advent has injected new buzz into Birmingham's already vigorous musical life. Some are comparing his electrifying concerts with the heady days of the young Rattle.
At once self-denigrating and twinkling, Nelsons's commitment to his adopted city is warm and earnest: "The orchestra is a big world messenger for Birmingham. That's how I first heard about the place, through Simon's recordings when he was music director [1980-98]. I didn't even know where Birmingham was ? I'm sorry, I was a kid growing up in Latvia, the other side of the iron curtain!"
Spending so much time travelling the world, then returning to his flat in Birmingham, Nelsons is well placed to take a view on the benefits of Birmingham winning UK City of Culture.
"I can see it both as an insider and an outsider. I'd say it would act as a spur to attract people internationally who know Birmingham only as an industrial city and think, well it's not far from London, I'll go to London instead."
But there's another vital issue: "Birmingham did a truly remarkable thing in building Symphony Hall, which is the finest concert hall in the UK and one of the best in the world. The city has supported music without putting on the brakes. It deserves to have the title which, in this difficult time, will help support a cultural life that otherwise might be under threat."
His priority during his time in the UK is to speak out for music education in schools. "It's what Simon was always fighting for. There were cuts, they tell me, in the Thatcher years. Now, as a consequence, we are struggling with audiences. In Birmingham they are still good. People here understand the value: you may not be able to afford to go to the Bahamas but you can pay £30 for a concert and get enormous emotional satisfaction. But in these difficult times, I am anxious about the future."
Does he really fear that the internationally renowned CBSO, its offshoot, the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, its choirs and education programmes could face cuts? "Of course. I am worried from my own experience of living in the Soviet Union. If you cut something in hard times to save money, you see that in 20 years it can result in catastrophe. Music is food for the soul. Without it, it's like cutting off half the human being. I worry for humanity."
Born in Riga in 1978, he reflects on his own childhood, oppressive in so many respects: "The Soviet Union had only one party, you couldn't express yourself freely, you couldn't admit belief in God. And yet this terrible regime understood that human beings have to express themselves, through music, even at a bad level. All kids studied music automatically, just as they did maths or languages or sport.
"Why make it optional? It shouldn't even be discussed. If someone asked me as a six-year-old kid if I wanted to learn maths, of course I'd say 'no' because I hated it. It might be expensive to make music lessons available. But it's even more costly to deal with human beings who have half their intellect and spirit left undeveloped."
The life of the spirit, a touchstone in his conversation, is key to Nelsons's thoughtful musical intelligence. "I see, in this life, the hardship many suffer. I see the joy that music can give. How we deal with all this is part of a preparation for the next life." Does he believe in God? "Yes." Does he adhere to a formal religion? "I was crucified ? no, christened! ? a Catholic."
For the first time, delighted at his own rare linguistic lapse, he bursts into a roar of infectious laughter, betraying a sense of wicked fun. "But I am not dogmatic. In Vienna the other day, with my fiancée [the Latvian opera singer Kristine Opolais], we went into the cathedral. I will go into any church wherever I am, just to sit and think."
Nelsons comes from a family of musicians. His mother founded the first early music group in Latvia. His stepfather runs an amateur men's choir. "So, from the age of three I was always around rehearsals and concerts. My biological father, now retired, was principal cellist of the orchestra in Riga. But it was my stepfather who took me to my first opera, one of the strongest experiences of my life."
The opera in question was Wagner's Tannhäuser, which lasts several hours, has a tortuous plot, a misty Middle Ages setting and a tragic end. Nelsons was five years old. Persuading a child to sit still through the latest Disney at this age can be torture. Surely he must have fidgeted? Whether or not he did, the impact was cataclysmic.
"You know I was very nervous, just the sort of nervousness I feel now before a concert. The lights went down. The conductor came in and I felt very agitated. At that moment I thought 'Oh my God, if something goes wrong it's this man's fault. He has to conduct all the time, without a pause. Every gesture he makes is reflected by the orchestra and if he goes wrong they will go wrong.' So I was very scared for him. And that's when I knew I would be a musician, or even, subconsciously, a conductor."
He attended a specialist music school and set out on a career as a professional trumpeter. His lucky break came when the Oslo Philharmonic was visiting Riga, conducted by Jansons. The trumpeter fell sick before Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique. So Nelsons, just 21, "grabbed my trumpet and did it". It gave him the chance to meet Jansons, whom he then shadowed as a trainee conductor.
"So, having been an orchestral player myself, I know that orchestras are highly critical of conductors," Nelsons grins. "This is normal. I used to sit up in the trumpet section, studying the mistakes on the podium. I would think 'Oh my God, please don't stop us playing here because everyone will be angry.' You have to sense the moment. It's the psychology that matters. The worst is to play a few bars and then stop and start preaching. It's about atmosphere. I don't believe in bad chemistry and a good concert."
Now regarded as an exceptional interpreter of large-scale Romantic repertoire, Nelsons's passion for Wagner is coming full circle. On Saturday, as the climax of the CBSO season, he conducts a concert performance of Lohengrin in Birmingham, with a star cast. This is an unofficial "dry run" for July, when Nelsons will conduct the opening event at that shrine to Wagner, the Bayreuth Festival, with a new production of Lohengrin.
It is also the first season under the new regime. Following the death recently of Wolfgang Wagner, the composer's grandson and sole director since 1957, all eyes are on his daughters, half-sisters Eva and Katharina, now at the helm. All eyes, that is, except the serious pale blue ones sitting across the lunch table in Birmingham. "I am not interested in all this. I was invited by Wolfgang and his wife. Now both are dead. As far as it concerns me, Bayreuth is just about my love for the music. Whatever else goes on is not so important."
Andris Nelsons has no enthusiam for the old-style dictatorial glamour associated with conductors of the past, notably Karajan, Toscanini or Furtwängler. "I never wanted to be a boss or to lead. There's no point being a dictator and saying 'I want it this way' because who cares? You have to show that you want it that way because the music requires it, because Strauss or Tchaikovsky want it. Yes, there's responsibility and leadership but it's about teamwork. I'm not making the rules. We are together making music."
He knows what he's trying to do. His mercurial stage presence and rapid ascent suggests he is getting it right. "But at the same time I agree with Karajan, who said there are only two places where democracy is impossible: music and the army. We can't just do as we feel because we'd all do it differently. Imagine 100 people all following their own instinct. Disaster!"
All that matters to Nelsons is whether the music touches those who listen. "Does it speak to you? Have you been blown away? Have we musicians created an atmosphere? Being technically perfect is the basic mechanism, but no more. We need to add the magic and the hypnotic power. Otherwise it is nothing, like wine without alcohol." The proof, if any is needed, is all there in this maestro's intoxicating concerts.