In his own words: Andris Nelsons on the meaning of music
The emotional impact of conducting at the Gewandhaus
He has held the position of Kapellmeister at the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra since 2017. In an interview originally published prior to taking on the widely heralded role, Andris Nelsons revealed how he overcame shyness to become one of the most acclaimed conductors of his generation.
Music has always been a huge part of my life — and, actually, even before I was born! My parents are both musicians so when I was inside the womb I'm sure I heard music then, too. When I was a child growing up in Riga, Latvia, it was playing in our house all the time: choir music and Renaissance music, jazz, blues — and I was aware of pop. But it was mostly classical.
The turning point for me was when I was five years old and my parents took me to my first live opera: Wagner's Tannhäuser. They had explained what was going to happen and I had listened to the music on LP. But nothing could prepare me for the atmosphere that night. I remember the lights dimming, the orchestra starting to play and the curtains opening... And the music! I remember crying because the music was so emotional and I've been in love with Wagner ever since.
I also remember being fascinated by the conductor. I thought he was making the music himself with his gestures, like some sort of magician. I can't say that was when I thought: 'I want to become a conductor!' but I do think it planted the seed, subconsciously.
I started studying piano when I was five, but even though I was fascinated by music at that age I didn't want to practice for eight hours a day because I had also discovered football. But when I took up the trumpet aged 11 — a spontaneous decision on my part — I did practice for eight hours a day. I loved it. Then I started to read about conducting and to understand its complexities. It looks easier than it actually is!
When I began to study conducting I didn't tell people about it. I remember my first time on the podium. I was playing trumpet in my high school orchestra in Riga when the conductor — who was a great conductor at Riga Opera — didn't come to rehearsal for some reason. Now, normally I'm a very shy person. But when it looked as though rehearsals would have to be cancelled I stood up and heard myself saying: 'I've been studying conducting for a while and I know this piece. Let's rehearse.' I couldn't believe I did it. That was the moment I knew I really wanted to study this profession properly, because I discovered that I can best express myself as a musician when I'm conducting. Standing in front of the orchestra that day I suddenly forgot I was shy. I wasn't nervous — and I thought I would be. Saying that, I can only imagine how disastrous that rehearsal was!
Now I'm very happy and fortunate to conduct music with amazing orchestras, such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where I am Music Director. My profession is mystical. Every conductor performs differently, so you can't look at any one in particular and say: “That's how you are supposed to do it.”
Some people think the conductor is the 'boss' or influences what the musicians are doing: but that's never been the attraction for me. Being the conductor doesn't mean I know more or I can influence more. From the first moment to the last bar it's my job to create teamwork and atmosphere. It's not about ego or about 'you'. It's about the music and the greatness of these genius composers who have written wonderful scores. But the scores are only made up of notes. As the conductor, you have to look at what's happening between the notes. What is the meaning of the music? What was the composer trying to say?
Of course, all art forms are important. But, for me, music is higher than the others because it goes beyond the intellect. You can't explain it sometimes. You have to feel it. It's like a food for our souls and that is very special. The world is quite confused nowadays, so I think it's more important than ever.
I count myself lucky to be the Kappellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. From the first moment I worked with them as guest conductor in 2011, I was so impressed with the quality of the orchestra, their sound and great discipline. Of course, I knew then that Gewandhaus was one of the best orchestras in the world with a rich tradition going back to Bach and Mendelssohn (who was the Music Director 1835-1847), so I was nervous. But then I experienced the spirit of the musicians and the special atmosphere they create. Whether our Gewandhaus people are selling tickets, working in the canteen or up on stage, it's just a dream for me. What do I look forward to most about working with them? Everything! But mainly making a musical and human connection with the musicians — and the audience, of course...
In an interview update, Andris Nelsons praises the Gewandhausorchester’s charitable volunteer efforts to help ease the negative social distancing aspects of the COVID-19 crisis in Leipzig:
The sense of community spirit between our musicians and the people of Leipzig is something we truly treasure. In late April our musicians performed one-of-a-kind open-air mini-concerts outside of senior citizens’ living centers, and other residences and institutions in the city, to bring joy to the people. At the same time our musicians offered incomparable musical solace to people who have been cut off from their families for weeks, and without access to any live entertainment. Our many years of close cooperation between DHL and the Gewandhausorchester made this joint effort not only possible, but an exciting and fulfilling experience for us all, as well.
Hitting the right notes
The Gewandhaus Orchestra — the oldest municipal concert orchestra in the world — has its origins in a concert society called the Grand Concert (founded in 1743) which performed in the more spacious homes of Leipzig society. In 1781 it changed its name to the Gewandhaus and has performed with some of the greatest musicians of every epoch, including Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Wagner. Its Musical Directors have included Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Arthur Nikisch and, most recently, Riccardo Chailly.
— Tony Greenway
Published: May 2020
Images: Marco Borggreve