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Interview with conductor Andris Nelsons

  • January 2017

Interview with conductor Andris Nelsons

“The energy of an orchestra can be a great source of inspiration.”


Young Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons, Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, ranks among the leading exponents of his art. Talking to THE FOCUS, this internationally celebrated rising star explains about orchestral psychology, what it takes to make a masterful performance, and nature of his role on the podium.

The Focus: One of the most fascinating aspects of your work must surely be the challenge of coordinating the output of one hundred musicians. How do you work with them as a team?

Andris Nelsons: For the conductor the most important thing during the rehearsal process is the quality of the contact with the performers. In opera this is very complicated, because you have to work with orchestra, chorus and soloists, which can mean more than 200 people. You need to set the atmosphere and try to combine the strong individual talents of the various artists to arrive at an integral performance.

The Focus: How exactly do you communicate your ideas about a work?

Nelsons: You have to try – with your face, your hands and your personality – to express what’s behind the notes. That’s the most important thing. To support people you also sometimes have to explain many things. But in this respect you have to be careful. You shouldn’t talk too much. Once people get used to you, they stop paying attention if you always say the same thing. But then, every conductor is different and adopts a different approach.

The Focus: Do some of the players or singers try to dominate the others?

Nelsons: There are people who try to upstage others. As a conductor you’re the unifying force that combines the ideas of the different artists. If you succeed, then there is a great explosion of artistic power.

The Focus: You often have as little as a month or maybe only two weeks to rehearse with artists you may never have seen or heard before. How do you inspire a sense of esprit de corps?

Nelsons: To a certain extent you can still get to know the individual musicians as artists. It’s an exercise in psychology and it demands a kind of mutual respect.

The Focus: Do they accept your absolute leadership?

Nelsons: It’s not absolute leadership. The music does the leading, so it should be the composer who is the leader. It’s not good for a conductor to say “I’m the leader” in an excessively egoistic sense.

The Focus: So serving the composer is the driving force for the performers?

Nelsons: Yes, that’s the way it should be. If the performers only play what the conductor demands, you’re only half way there. They have to play it that way because Beethoven or Wagner demands it. But of course there remains a certain hierarchy in the relationship between the protagonists.

The Focus: And at the top of the hierarchy is the conductor.

Nelsons: No, the composer.

The Focus: So how exactly do you see your role? Inspiring the players or singers? Conveying the vision of the composer?

Nelsons: You have to give inspiration and energy. Conducting requires fierce ambition to get the best musical result. And it requires great discipline from both the conductor and the musicians. The musicians should have a sense of discipline. It’s not a democracy in the sense of “We do what we want.” Karajan once said that there’s no democracy in music and that there are two places where democracy is not helpful: in music and in the army. I tend to agree with him. But these days it’s not a dictatorship either. Perhaps encouragement is the word that describes it best. As a conductor you have to encourage the players.

The Focus: That, as you said, is an exercise in psychology, but also in communication. Does the technical language of music – the conductor’s natural vocabulary – lend itself to encouraging or motivating people?

Nelsons: When we talk during rehearsals the language can be technical, it can be emotional, it can be associative. The technical language uses musical terms: longer, shorter, marcato, staccato, tenuto, and so on. This is the language you often have to use because some players prefer precise technical terms. But technical terms won’t open up the inner heart or soul of the music. At the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth – the chords: bee, baa, baa, bam – you can ask for a marcato. That may be technically correct, but it doesn’t convey the atmosphere. It takes emotional and associative language to communicate the character of the music.

The Focus: You love opera. Would you say the kind of leadership you just described is particularly appropriate for opera?

Nelsons: No, I take the same approach to symphonic music. In a symphony you can find the same drama as in an opera. Symphonic music is even more open to the imagination because there is a direction but no story. In opera you have a story that you can’t change. What makes opera so challenging is the size of the apparatus.

The Focus: So you have more latitude when conducting a symphony?

Nelsons: Let’s say the role of conductor is stronger in the sense of interpretation, of leadership in the best sense of the word. In opera you have to respect and enjoy the interpretation of each singer, but at the same time you must try to lead and find the right direction. This is very difficult. If you allow everything to be how everybody thinks it should be, you will have a hundred different interpretations. So the word of the conductor is psychologically very, very important. If you simply tell somebody: “You have to do this, because I say so,” it won’t help the music or the singer. They may do what you want, but if they don’t understand why, it’s wrong for the music. So you have to convince the singers and musicians. They have to believe you. You cannot rely on the hierarchy. You cannot conduct Tristan or Beethoven’s Sixth if you don’t have an open mind and a warm heart – because you have to create an atmosphere of love or of lament. If the members of the orchestra don’t believe you, you’ll never be able to create the right atmosphere.

The Focus: That seems to imply there are different forms of sensitivity for operas or symphonic works…

Nelsons: Sensitivity is very important. But the great thing about music is that there is no right or wrong way. There are different ways, different styles. The composer has written what he wants, but who is to say what is behind the hieroglyphs that are the notes? I don’t know how anybody can think they are conveying the inner meaning by saying: “Oh this is right, and that is wrong.” Only on a very basic level can you say: “That’s a wrong note,” or “that’s much too slow.” What it finally comes down to is: Are we touched by the music or not?

The Focus: What are the crucial criteria in establishing your credibility with the orchestra?

Nelsons: Well, I’m very glad that I played in the orchestra before I began to conduct. I played trumpet, and I studied singing, too. Spending six years in the orchestra is helpful when it comes to understanding the atmosphere. When you join the orchestra for a rehearsal, the first ten minutes are decisive. This is the time when it should click.

The Focus: Is it safe to assume that all musicians share the same love of music and the same sense of motivation for their work? In the corporate world people are driven by different motives – some have career ambitions; some pursue social goals; some seek quality of life. For the layman, outside looking in, there is a sense that everyone in an orchestra shares – or should share – the same motives…

Nelsons: Perhaps I’m really quite naïve and idealistic about music, but I think that should be the case. All the musicians should share a motivation to achieve the best possible result. But as everywhere in life, among musicians too you find different characters, ambitions and interests.

The Focus: How much individualism can orchestral players afford?

Nelsons: I very much enjoy bringing all individuals together for one goal. Look at it this way: In any symphonic piece or opera you have solo moments for certain instruments, for the first clarinet or the horn or the trumpet or the first violin. The players have rehearsed and considered how they would like to perform. They develop a very interesting idea and a strong personality comes through their music, and in that case you may let that solo phrase dominate. It’s a question of what you feel is right. The same can apply with a singer. If you say: “You have to do exactly this or that,” you’ll kill the spontaneity and suppress the singer’s personality. Your singers and musicians have to feel happy.

The Focus: Do you allow them to inspire you?

Nelsons: Yes, and it’s lovely. Sometimes when you first join up with a new orchestra, their energy can be a great source of inspiration. The best thing, of course, is working with the strongest team – with your own orchestra, your own opera house; if you can build up certain sounds, certain intimacies, a certain direction of music-making. I am very happy about the great teamwork in Birmingham with my wonderful orchestra.

The Focus: How do you find the right balance between individual performance and team performance?

Nelsons: You do need to find a balance, and this depends again on the working atmosphere you create; it also depends on the circumstances of each production or each orchestra, because there are different orchestras. If you work with the top orchestras in Berlin, Vienna, Amsterdam, Munich, you know of course that the level is very high; that the personalities of the players are very strong. The work will be a give-and-take.

The Focus: With which instruments does the conductor have the most intense working relationship?

Nelsons: Basically we have to work equally with all of the instruments. Of course it happens that we have to do some detailed work with certain instrument groups; or we have to put together this or that, vertically or horizontally. But my goal is to arrive at a kind of chamber-music thinking within a full orchestra. When we play a symphony, even with a hundred people, the double basses, for example, must know what’s happening with the harp. I think it helps if every player maintains a sense of what is going on within the orchestral family.

The Focus: What exactly are the members of the orchestra looking for when they glance up from the music to watch you for a moment?

Nelsons: Let me put it this way: As a conductor you need to be able to sense when they need your help as an organizer. Mostly you are giving the beat, of course; you are organizing things technically and musically. But if that’s all you do, it’s boring. Consider also that the distance from one side of the orchestra to the other is fifty meters, so if everyone followed your beat immediately, they could not be playing entirely together. Which means that they have to be aware of one another as a body.

The Focus: A member of the Vienna Philharmonic reportedly once said that at some point they could get any conductor to conduct the way they would play without him. Is there any truth in that?

Nelsons: In a certain sense, yes. If the technical and musical level of an orchestra is extremely high, they could play without a conductor.

The Focus: Have you ever experienced a situation in which you felt that you were unable to get the most out of an orchestra?

Nelsons: If you stay naively open to music and fight for music; if people see that you only care about the music and not about yourself, then hopefully they will believe in you. You will never get everybody to like you or accept your ideas. What’s important is that they should say “He’s so committed, so dedicated, that I respect him.”

The Focus: Daniel Barenboim went so far as to say that conductors should assume that at least one third of the musicians would hate him.

Nelsons: I cannot imagine that a third of an orchestra would hate such a great musician as Daniel Barenboim. But there is an aspect of truth in this statement. Even some of the musicians who say they like you probably don’t. One of the psychological aspects of conducting is how much you are accepted. That was a very important factor for me when I went to Birmingham to become Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. I would never accept such a position if I knew that half the orchestra didn’t like me. After all, the relationship is a bit like a marriage.

The Focus: How long do such marriages between a conductor and an orchestra typically last?

Nelsons: There are so many different examples: Simon Rattle spent 18 years in Birmingham, Mariss Jansons spent 22 years in Oslo. But there are early divorces, too.

The Focus: You said you consider yourself first and foremost in the service of the composer; but aren’t you also in the service of the musicians, acting as a kind of social architect to help them develop and flourish?

Nelsons: An architect? That’s an interesting comparison. The architect is responsible for designing, shaping the building, but he has to inspire everyone in the value chain, because he’s not the one doing the actual building. Yes, it’s a fair comparison with the role of the conductor.

The Focus: Thinking back to your time as a musician, what kind of conductors did you experience?

Nelsons: People in the orchestra have very different reactions to the same conductor. I personally liked it very much when the conductor encouraged us, trying out different approaches in terms of communication and listening carefully to how the orchestra responded. As a conductor you always find there are people who understand you and follow you, but others will stop and ask you every time something is written differently in the score.

The Focus: Is it difficult to maintain the same standard on different nights or at different concerts?

Nelsons: The moment when the unexpected happens – that is something marvelous in music. A performance will never be the same on two consecutive nights even if you wanted it to be. One day, for example, a particular tempo will feel just right at a particular moment, but if you take care to repeat exactly the same speed the next day, you might feel it needs to be just a touch slower.

The Focus: What’s your ultimate goal as a conductor?

Nelsons: My dream is to retain the will to get to know new things; to retain that special blend of childlike openness and experience. As you get older there is danger that you will have performed so many pieces so many times. You must not let things get boring or monotonous. When Carlos Kleiber, for example, got older, he was still full of fresh ideas, still learning and renewing himself, and Mariss Jansons is just the same.

The Focus: What can you do make sure this works out the same way for you?

Nelsons: It’s important not to get caught up in routines and intrigues; not to become so disappointed with life that you no longer believe in the good things. You need to get through the disappointments and learn from experience to retain a belief in yourself. For some it’s like a religion, in others it’s more like naivety; it depends a lot on your personality and the people who surround you.

The Focus: You talk about “belief in yourself” and it being “like a religion”; are you a religious person?
Nelsons: I believe in God, but I could be more religious. No, for me the purpose of life is not money or being famous or getting on the front covers. I find that terrible. I believe you should go through life taking in the healthy things around you.

The interview with Andris Nelsons was conducted by Ulrike Mertens, FOCUS, and Gabriel Sànchez Zinny, Egon Zehnder, New York, in the Metropolitan Opera, New York.

RESUMÉ Andris Nelsons

Andris Nelsons was born on November 18, 1978 in Riga to a family of musicians. He studied trumpet at the Emil Darzins School of Music at the Latvian Conservatory and began conducting early on, before taking a more systematic approach to the discipline at the national music academy. He continued his studies of conducting under Alexander Titov at the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatoire in St. Petersburg. He also took master classes with Neeme Järvi and Jorma Panula. Since 2002, Nelsons has also studied privately under Mariss Jansons, who is Music Director of two top-tier ensembles, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks.

Nelsons' first position was as a trumpet player in the orchestra of the Latvian National Opera, where he was appointed Principal Conductor in the 2003/04 season. His first major productions included Wagner's Ring Des Nibelungen. In the 2005/06 and 2006/07 seasons he made his debut with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zürich, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. In summer 2006, he became director of the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie in Herford, and in winter 2006, first appeared at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin as the conductor of Puccini's La Bohème. During the last two seasons, he also has undertaken debut performances at the Berliner Staatsoper, the Vienna State Opera, Pittsburgh Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra and the Paris-based Orchestre National de France, all of which are top names in the international music scene. In October 2007 he took over as Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which Simon Rattle had led into the "champions' league" of international orchestras. He recently renewed his contract until the 2013/14 season. This season, debuts will follow at the Metropolitan Opera New York, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Staatskapelle Berlin, the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden and, further ahead, with Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Symphony and Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. In Summer 2010, Nelsons is to conduct Lohengrin in his Bayreuth debut.


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