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Boston has a music director: what took them so long?

It is more than three years since James Levine’s health left him unable to continue as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

It is more than two years since Andris Nelsons made his BSO debut as a substitute for Levine in Mahler’s ninth symphony, captivating players and audiences alike.

Last summer he conducted at Tanglewood. I saw him shortly afterwards in Bayreuth and asked him if he had been approached about the Boston vacancy. ‘They haven’t said a word to me,’ he said, looking a little downcast.

Today, he was appointed music director of the BSO.


andris nelsons

So what was the reason for the delay? Was Boston flirting with others? Turned down by them? Was the BSO unable to get its act together for two years after most of the players realised that this young Latvian – still only 34 – was the most energising maestro they had seen in years? Andris wanted the job. Why did the BSO dither for so long?

He will give Boston 8-10 weeks a year, the minimum for a music director. Elsewhere, he is music director at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra until 2015 at the earliest. He is also one of three core conductors at Bayreuth and a vital element in the Lucerne Festival.

Had Boston moved faster, it might have got more. Press release below.


Andris Nelsons conducting


Andris Nelsons appointed Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra

The 34-year-old Latvian will assume the position from the 2014/15 season

The Boston Symphony Orchestra has appointed Andris Nelsons as Music Director from the 2014/15 season, for an initial five year commitment. He is the 15th music director of the orchestra since its founding in 1881, succeedingJames Levine who held the position from 2004 to 2011. At 34 years old, Andris Nelsons is the youngest music director to lead the Boston Symphony Orchestra in over 100 years; he is also the first Latvian-born conductor to take on the post.

“I am deeply honoured and touched that the Boston Symphony Orchestra has appointed me its next music director, as it is one of the highest achievements a conductor could hope for in his lifetime,” said  Andris Nelsons.  “Each time I have worked with the BSO I have been inspired by how effectively it gets to the heart of the music, always leaving its audience with a wealth of emotions.  So it is with great joy that I truly look forward to joining this wonderful musical family and getting to know the beautiful city of Boston and the community that so clearly loves its great orchestra.  As I consider my future with the Boston Symphony, I imagine us working closely together to bring the deepest passion and love that we all share for music to ever greater numbers of music fans in Boston, at Tanglewood, and throughout the world.”

Andris Nelsons made his BSO debut in March 2011, conducting Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 at Carnegie Hall in place of James Levine. Last summer, he made his Tanglewood Festival debut, conducting both the BSO and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra.  In January this year, he made his Symphony Hall debut with the BSO, leading a programme of Shostakovich’s 1st Violin Concerto with fellow Latvian compatriot, Baiba Skride, and Tchaikovsky Symphony No.5.

As Music Director, Nelsons will lead approximately 8-10 weeks of programmes during the BSO’s 2014/15 subscription season in Boston’s Symphony Hall, and will lead 12 weeks of programmes in each subsequent season.  He will also lead programmes at Tanglewood. Nelsons will act as Music Director Designate for the BSO’s 2013/14 season, making his first appearance in that official capacity October 17-19 with Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C, with soloist Paul Lewis, and Brahms’s Symphony No. 3.

Andris Nelsons’ appointment consolidates a long standing relationship between the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Konzertdirektion Schmid, whose close musical alliance began over 40 years ago when company founder, Hans Ulrich Schmid, brought the orchestra on a major tour to Europe in 1971.

President Cornelia Schmid said:

“This is a thrilling and historic day for all of us at Konzertdirektion Schmid.  We have accompanied Andris Nelsons’ career from the very beginning and his appointment as Music Director of the Boston Symphony fills us with tremendous pride. The long-standing history between Konzertdirektion Schmid and the BSO, which goes back to my father’s time and my first steps in the music business as a guide at Tanglewood, makes this appointment particularly special for the company.   It therefore feels very apt to be even more closely associated with this wonderful institution and we greatly look forward to a bright future of exciting projects and tours in this new historic chapter.”

BSO’s Managing Director, Mark Volpe, said:

“All of us at the BSO are incredibly proud to be part of this landmark moment in the BSO’s 132-year history, as we announce the appointment of Andris Nelsons as the next Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. We believe that Andris Nelsons will further the BSO’s proud standing as one of the world’s greatest orchestras and bring his singular musical gifts to the orchestra and its countless fans in Boston, across the nation, and around the globe. We so look forward to working closely with our wonderful and long-time colleagues  at Konzertdirektion Schmid to create the best possible environment for Andris Nelsons and the BSO to realize their highest goals in making music together.”

Andris Nelsons is one of the most sought-after young conductors on the international scene today, earning distinction on both the opera and concert podiums, including those of the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, as well as the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Vienna State Opera, Metropolitan Opera and the Bayreuth Festival.

Mr Nelsons’ tenure since 2008 as Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has earned widespread critical acclaim as one of the most exciting musical partnerships in Europe, through their appearances worldwide and their award-winning recordings for Orfeo and Unitel.


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  1. You asked what took them so long.

    There’s no one the caliber of Bernard Haitink and Sir Colin Davis. That’s the problem.

    • True Leslie.

      Those of us who know our music can sort the wheat from the chaff.

  2. Sloppy reporting, sir.

    8-10 weeks is only the first season – every subsequent one will have 12 weeks of performances.

    Here’s what took so long: making a decision after seeing more than one program from each guest. It’s entirely possible to have someone come in for one great concert and then make a premature choice. Why risk years of the organization’s artistic future on a rash choice because people on the Internet think you should move faster?

    Boston wasn’t ‘flirting,’ it was auditioning. Giving players lots of chances to see different maestros across different repertoire.

    I’m cautiously optimistic about Nelsons in Boston.

    • Anna Thompson says:

      Precisely. The last thing BSO should have done was jump too soon simply to get someone in the post. This is not dithering, this is following an appropriately structured and considered process of auditioning and comparing. BSO had to get it right. And indeed Nelsons had to get it right – he no doubt has had other offers, and has to work out what makes sense for him artistially and personally. The BSO may be a big fish, but any conductor who drops everything the moment any orchestra comes a-courting, or on the basis of a single concert appearance, is not going about things the right way. If this decision has been two-years in the making, then we can hopefully feel assured that it has been made in the right way and for the right reasons.

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      I think you are right – but it is kind of strange that they had to “audition” a number of people. One would think that the next music director for any orchestra might be someone who the orchestra already knows well because he/she has appeared as a guest with them for a while at that point.

  3. This isn’t a big surprise, but it’s nice to see management finally do something! It does seem odd that it took so long though. Best of luck to Maestro Nelson and I look forward to hearing him perform again at Symphony Hall.

  4. Boston Symphony, finest orchestra in the USA, deserves a dedicated music director. not somebody who is stretched all over the place.

  5. Luciano says:

    Well, now we will find out if Nelsons belongs in the top tier or not. It has to be said that his tenure at CBSO has not been an unqualified success, unlike the tenures of his predecessors Oramo and Rattle. Now he will have the chance to prove the doubters (like me) wrong.

    • Malcolm James says:

      Says who? Everything I hear from Brum, including a member of the orchestra, is that they love him! A towards the end of their tenures, many people had got a bit tired of Rattle and Oramo, although in Rattle’s (and possibly Oramo’s) case this has re-evaluated after they left.

    • Halldor says:

      You’re serious?!
      By what criteria?

    • Agree with Malcolm and Halldor – Nelsons at CBSO has been remarkable and he is hugely popular with orchestra, chorus and audience. Not sure of the background to your comment Luciano?

      A bit of a shame Norman that you reported this as a bit of a dig at Boston rather than congratulating an excellent young conductor on deservedly securing one of the top jobs.

      • Luciano says:

        Sorry if I came across as being unduly negative. No doubt it has been a success in Birmingham, but, when they renewed his contract it was said that this was partly to give the relationship more time to ‘bed’. For whatever reason, the CBSO/Nelsons combo has not been on the radar to the same extent that Oramo or Rattle was, though perhaps the comparison with Rattle is unfair. In any case, I’ve heard him several times myself with different orchestras, and each time felt he didn’t quite live up to the hype. Obviously very very talented, but still finding his own way to a certain extent, coming out of Jansons’ shadow. Having said that it is clear that orchestras love him wherever he goes. But I’m entitled to my opinion and will stick to it. Not saying he ain’t good, but conducting immortal? Not so sure.

        I think the main issue actually is that some people get hyped to such an extent, that no human being can actually live up to it.

        • Thanks for explaining Luciano and yes of course you’re entitled to your opinion – particularly based on what you’ve heard of him.

          I’m still not sure though what you mean about the CBSO relationship? I don’t recall the ‘time to bed’ comment – in fact, their management got him to sign an extended contract very early in his time there, and the most recent extension was the best they could get given he was likely to head off to a bigger post at some point soon.

          Certainly around Birmingham the CBSO / Nelsons combo has been much higher profile than that with Oramo – although his tenure was also very good.

        • Malcolm James says:

          There is also another difference between Rattle and Nelsons (and Oramo for that matter) in their profile with the CBSO. Rattle was a trailblazer when he took over the CBSO at a low ebb and transformed it. If people came to regard the CBSO as being on a par with London orchestras, this was unusual in the 1980s (and really the only comparision was the Halle under Barbirolli), but the standard of playing in the regional orchestras has improved considerably since then. I’m sure that Oramo and Nelsons would be the first to admit that what they have achieved with the orchestra is in large measure down the fact that they are standing on Rattle’s shoulders, so to speak.

          • Alexander Hall says:

            Further to the comment about improved playing standards in regional orchestras, this is indirectly one of the consequences of the insanely high property and accommodation costs in London. Top orchestras like the LSO and the Philharmonia have repeatedly lost key players simply because living in the capital is too expensive. Two recent examples: Christian Jones, ex-principal bass trombone with the Philharmonia and his wife, Katy Jones, ex co-principal trombone with the LSO have both gone to northern orchestras. If you are a musician in your thirties living in London and wish to start a family, you are hard pressed to do it on the kind of money a London orchestra pays.

  6. Alexander Hall says:

    Perhaps Boston is just super-picky in some respects. David Cooper, the recent runner-up for the position of THIRD horn in the Boston orchestra, is currently playing guest principal with the LSO, including a performance on Thursday night of the important solo in Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony. You wouldn’t expect the LSO to go for the second-rate, would you now?

    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      According to my spies, David Cooper also just won the principal horn audition with National Symphony (Eschenbach) in Washington, DC. He is a remarkable talent in his mid-20s. BSO does have a significant history of indecision concerning important appointments.

      Several BSO musicians have posted the Nelsons announcement on their Facebook pages with great enthusiasm. Nelsons will be 36 when he takes over in 2014…cent’anni* as they say in South Philly dialect (may he live 100 years).

      *pronounced “chen-dahn” in the 9th Street Italian market.

      • Bob- While you’re at it, for this pastry addict can you recommend any places in South Philly that serve great tiramisu?

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      There are many very good musicians auditioning for not that many top positions, so if someone auditions for a third horn position in one orchestra but doesn’t get the job but goes on to play principal in another orchestra, that doesn’t mean that the latter is a less good orchestra. There are many factors which play into those decisions. And is someone plays second or third horn, that doesn’t necessarily mean he/she is a less able player than someone who occupies a principal position. There are some horn masterclasses for the Youtube Symphony on, well, Youtube, one with the current principal of the LSO and one with Sarah Willis who is “only” second horn with the Berliner Philharmoniker. They both teach and play the same excerpts – and Willis plays them drastically better.

  7. Petros Linardos says:

    Andris Nelsons made his debut by substituting for James Levine not in Boston, but at Carnegie Hall. Here are the details from the BSO website:

    “Andris Nelsons made his Boston Symphony Orchestra debut in March 2011, leading Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 at Carnegie Hall in place of James Levine. Last summer he conducted both the Boston Symphony Orchestra (in Ravel’s La Valse) and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra (in Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy with Anne-Sophie Mutter) as part of Tanglewood’s gala 75th-anniversary concert, following that the next day with a BSO concert pairing Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Brahms’s Symphony No. 2. Mr. Nelsons made his Symphony Hall debut with the BSO this past January, leading a program of Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with soloist Baiba Skride and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.”

  8. For me, all the new kids on the block – lack a certain something when compared to a conductor, who for me had absolutely everything:

    Edward Downes.

    For me Downes had it all, musicianship – he was a musician’s conductor. He was a musicologist, he turned the BBC Phil into one of the finest orchestras of all time.

    These new conductors, many of them in charge of amazing orchestras should look at Edward Downes and see what he did. He came from within the music.

    • Malcolm James says:

      Did you ever see Edward Downes at 35? You can’t compare the wisdom and insight of a 60 or 70 year-old with the vitality and energy of a 30 year old.

    • Squirrel says:

      Edward Downes? Is this a joke?

      But, Malcolm, I think at 35 Downes was leading the first ever postwar RIng at Covent Garden.. not shabby.

  9. Emil Archambault says:

    How can you even call it a MD with 8-12 weeks per year? How can he even claim to be sufficiently present to know what’s going on in his orchestra with so little presence?

    This strikes me as a case of wanting to have his cake and eat it too: Nelsons wants to be in Birmingham, Boston, Bayreuth, Lucerne, the MET, and maintain regular guest engagements in Berlin, Vienna (Staatsoper and VPO), Covent Garden, etc. All this on top of taking care of his baby!

    At some point, conductors have to choose between being mainly guest conductors or settling down in one or two (maybe 3) orchestras. If Nelsons does both, that means that he is cheating some orchestra somewhere, and Boston seems to be the wronged party.

    A small question: When Nagano became Principal Guest Conductor and artistic advisor in GOthenburg, committing to “six to seven weeks” every season, the GSO was criticized (among others by Mr Lebrecht) for selecting an absent leader. As you wrote, Mr Lebrecht, “Power without responsibility is never a healthy proposition.”
    Nagano is an Advisor at 7 weeks a season, while Nelsons is a MD at 8-12 weeks per year. Where is the difference? Has Andris Nelsons committed enough to be “responsible” for the BSO? As a matter of comparison, Nagano commits to 16 weeks in Montreal, and has cut down most of his guest conducting to focus on leading his orchestras (Gothenburg, Munich/Hamburg and Montreal). Nelsons will lead two orchestras, conduct all over the world and commit to lengthy opera runs, in top of having a baby. Speaking only in terms of time commitments (I am NOT comparing conducting abilities), I’d rather take Nagano’s 6-7 weeks a year than Nelsons’ 8-12 a season.

    • Anonymous says:

      12 weeks may not be much, but it is pretty standard. I doubt if Franz Welser-Most is in Cleveland more than 10 weeks per year.

    • Alexander Hall says:

      At the risk of stating the obvious, Nagano is not a good choice if you want to demonstrate the virtues of quality through lengthy contact periods. Nagano hasn’t lasted very long wherever he’s been. The Halle loathed him and were heartily glad to see the back of him (and are doing very well with Elder now, thank you) and his sojourns in Berlin and Munich with the Bavarian State Opera were fraught with difficulties and lack of artistic success. Now, very foolishly, Hamburg State Opera have decided to engage him as a replacement for the equally loathed Simone Young. I doubt whether he will last very long there. The point is: if you are very good indeed, everybody wants you and it certainly helps your career profile if you spread yourself thinly.

  10. George Gluek says:

    In retrospect, Nelsons was inevitable, given that the list of previous BSO conductors hews mainly to a certain segment of the alphabet: Koussevitsky, Leinsdorf, Levine, Monteux, Munch, Muck, Nikisch, Ozawa. The only outliers were Henschl and Steinberg, :-)

  11. In Boston, the inmates run the asylum. Boston Symphony musicians–player for player, arguably the best in the world–have now gone for a decade with either a part-time MD or none at all and, the fact is, they kind of like it that way. Hiring a part-timer isn’t a sacrifice so much as a plan.

  12. Michael Chen says:

    I am a Boston based music lover and have been following BSO’s search for their Music Director closely since
    Levine’s resignation in 2011. I think Andris Nelsons has been since the very beginning the # 1 choice of the management /orchestra but both Nelson’s multi-year extensive engagement/commitment in Europe and the fact that BSO had been burnt before by young Music Director led them to be very cautious. They rather take it slowly and make sure that Nelsons IS the right choice and he is committed to Boston. BSO is not an orchestra that jumps onto every single young hot conductor right out of the oven. Nelsons is really the exception when he was asked to take over for Levine for their Carnegie Hall Mahler 9th concert. That alone showed how highly BSO thought of Nelsons. I think BSO is a very very musical orchestra and I think Nelsons will be a good fit.

  13. I am intrigued by this issue of Music Directors of major orchestras holding several such posts in which they seem to each only work for part of the year. There are a lot of these examples, some of whom are music directors of orchestras on different continents (Dudamel, Alsop, and now Nelsons come to mind) but I wonder if there are any orchestras that in their search for a new music director have specified that they want a conductor as their exclusive music director (guest conducting appearances outside would be fine) in order to make a stronger connection with the musicians, the audience, the city, and community. Surely, with an orchestra as big as Boston, a music director could live quite comfortably on the salary of just that job (nearly $1 million I believe) but I understand the financial draw of having 2 or 3 such salaries. There must be other conductors that believe and promote being music director of just one orchestra, but the only one I’m aware of who advocates this, and practices what he preaches, is William Eddins at the Edmonton Symphony (

  14. Mark Horton says:

    I’ve heard & seen a few performances of the CBSO under Nelsons & was mightily impressed.I know a few of the players & they were more than happy to work under him. When you see them in action this is very clear to see,speaking from an ex-pro player’s point of view.There is a real sense of connection between orchestra & conductor that isn’t often present.
    Nelsons will only get better with age & the Boston will be in for a treat once he hits his stride with them,he certainly appears charismatic enough to take any doubters in the band with him. I wish him & the BSO the best of luck.

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