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The BSO and "The Spirit of Beethoven"

Clockwise from upper left: Andris Nelsons leads the BSO; Beethoven's name above the Symphony Hall proscenium; Hannah Kendall; the BSO performing at Symphony Hall
Symphony Hall and BSO images courtesy of the BSO; Hannah Kendall courtesy of the artist
Clockwise from upper left: Andris Nelsons leads the BSO; Beethoven's name above the Symphony Hall proscenium; Hannah Kendall; the BSO performing at Symphony Hall

Boston Symphony Orchestra Music Director Andris Nelsons describes the three online performances he conducts, each of them featuring Beethoven symphonies, and works inspired by them, written by composers of our time.

In January 2020, Nelsons and the BSO were looking ahead to a concert tour of Asia, followed by the last chapters of the 2019-2020 season. The tour, however, was cancelled as the now world-wide pandemic took hold in the very countries the orchestra was to have visited. And eventually, those last dynamic chapters of the season, including Nelsons's return, were also stricken from the schedule.

In a radically changed world, Nelsons and the orchestra were finally reunited to record three concerts for BSO Now, the Boston Symphony's online concert series. And in a remotely-produced interview, Nelsons described each concert, revealing the ways his relationship with Beethoven's symphonies have evolved, as well as how the impact of those symphonies is refracted through compositional voices of our time.

The excerpts that follow have been edited for clarity and length, and transcripts can be found below.

I began by asking Nelsons to describe the feeling of returning to Symphony Hall after being gone for so long.

The first program is made up of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, the "Eroica," and Hannah Kendall's Disillusioned Dreamer. Each confronts disappointment and, yes, disillusionment, but in different ways. In the case of the symphony, Nelsons told me that, while the music rises above the composer's disillusionment, his own interpretation of it also continues to evolve.


The "continuous process" Nelsons describes also affects the way he sees the "Eroica" in relation to Kendall's Disillusioned Dreamer.


In the second "Spirit of Beethoven" concert, Nelsons conducts the composer's Symphony No. 6, "Pastoral," along with Jeder Baum spricht (Every tree speaks), by Iranian-born Canadian composer Iman Habibi, a piece explicitly inspired by Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth Symphonies through the experience of present-day climate change. According to Nelsons, the challenge embedded in Habibi's music is clear when performed alongside the "Pastoral," but Jeder Baum spricht is also a transcendant piece in its own right.


The third concert in the series features Beethoven's Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7, along with Carlos Simon's Fate Now Conquers, a piece that draws inspiration from the second movement, Allegretto, of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. I asked Nelsons what he thinks Simon hears in that movement that would have sparked his imagination, which led, also, to Nelsons's own thoughts about the emotional trajectory of the symphonies included in the three concerts.


For information about hearing - and seeing - "The Spirit of Beethoven," visit the Boston Symphony Orchestra.


Andris Nelsons: Although, of course, being isolated and being not able to be with the orchestra and being back, it's a very painful year. But coming from the airport, seeing Peppino [Natale, the BSO's driver], it felt like it was really just so recently seeing the musicians, talking to musicians, performing, playing the music and, and seeing how great all the teams have been adjusting the hall and everything for this opportunity to perform on the stage and with the distance and without the audience.

But still, I was watching the online concert with our wonderful Assistant Conductor Anna Rakitina. And it was so great to see the detail, what actually comes out. Of course, seeing the conductor from different angles and seeing the musicians, individual musicians. Even with this distance, still you hear the great sound of Boston Symphony, the great quality of the Boston Symphony. And I kind of can hear the individual, even the string players, which makes these very interesting details you can hear. The technologies nowadays, as we know, develop so much that there is so much great opportunities to use this unfortunate period of our history, of civilization to find the ways to come back and to share. And that is even without audience being present at the hall.

The audience, the number of audience which are, you know, streaming and logging in for the streaming, including the Tanglewood, what was obviously in a virtual way, it's actually a huge number and, you know, finding the ways to actually connect to the audiences, which maybe before they would never know about the, you know, the quality of the Boston Symphony or have never been to the hall or Boston or the city before. And this is opportunity where so many people have joined from different parts of the world. And I think now our task and challenge, nice, great challenges, actually, [is] to keep them engaged.


Andris Nelsons: I have done the Third Symphony the most of all the symphonies of Beethoven. And we did a recording with the Vienna Philharmonic, and I remember it was such a wonderful journey through the symphonies. But performing now with the Boston Symphony, it is a continuous process. For example, when he composed the symphony, when he was encouraged about Napoléon. But after he scratched or deleted [his dedication to Napoléon], let's say, the music stayed the same.

So, he did not change the score and say, "OK, now the second subject will mean that, not anymore Napoléon, but to ..." So, the composition and its state and whatever the Funeral March is representing or these opening chords, [sings] really revolutionary feeling, I think it's beyond the political, and now doing this, the feeling of the tempo, for example, is also changing. And maybe there's a feeling that you can take more time. It's so deep that the flexibility of the performing it is [a] never ending process of searching, which this time has given us to see the perspective, which is much wider than we thought before, I think.


Andris Nelsons: Looking to Beethoven again and again, maybe earlier in my life, what I thought, for example, [about] the end of the symphony... [sings] ...that it's this positive, victorious feeling. But [the] more I experience, [the] more I come to the conclusion for me that actually this ending is really, it's furious, it's, you know, after this [sings] heart beats of the [sings] it's really, it's mad, it's furious.

And now looking to Hannah's piece, for example, you know, there's so much furious feeling about the piece and the ending. It ends like this scream of the oboes in high register, which is ... [sings] It's what Beethoven, you know, when we read how he, you know, how he had this kind of painful feeling in the ear that it's... He couldn't hear, but there was a lot of pain, a lot like a knife in his ears.

It's really very interesting, looking to her piece, how does she feel and connect that there is so much in this piece about furious and about not being in a big harmony, which sometimes we might have sometimes the illusion that Beethoven is actually, you know, in the Fifth Symphony or, of course, also in the Third or Fourth Symphony ends with a, "Yes!" But actually I'm starting to doubt; where is it really? The honest, victorious feeling, or it's really something, you know, something more.


Andris Nelsons: There is obviously, in one sense, the challenging background and everything. But I think in this case, of course, of the life of Iman [Habibi], or of course we make a parallel to Beethoven, or all of the challenges in life with what people that we have.

Then we are trying to find a connection with the spirituality or with nature, and the nature, what I think, is the nature of the Beethoven Sixth. And that it's very much, I think, metaphoric. I mean, it has such a unique feeling of, the Beethoven Sixth, as something so heavenly, beautiful, and unreachable in a certain sense that there's like a... It's very interesting, it's arguably my favorite of Beethoven symphonies. And many of the musicians said that actually that's their favorite symphony. And I talked to Toby, our First Trombone. And, you know, trombones are playing only in two movements. But he said that this is his favorite symphony, and not because they are three movements with the trombones not playing in, but because its extraordinary connection to the world beyond the things you can touch or, you know, it's the spirituality of this symphony. And therefore, I think it's the nature as a metaphor.

It's been a source for so many composers. And to Iman's piece, of course. And of course, you know, in his home country [of Iran], I mean, the views of the nature, it's so different and so, so special. And so you can see that, of course, everything is, that he is, of course, hugely influenced from the nature as a source, which gives you, I think, the space to breathe and space to open up. And I think he has is one of the most goose-bumping combinations of this piece, you know, when he comes with this, almost Strauss Zarathustrian feeling, you know.


Andris Nelsons: I sometimes forget the fact that he was practically, almost deaf. Absolutely, we could not listen to the music as we do, and we can, and it was most of his lifetime. And that how much it has to influence your vision towards life and your inner power to trust to something which is beyond this life, this, again, spirituality, and also fighting with yourself. And I think there is this constant texture of Simon's piece. You know, with the strings this [sings] and the brass and there's really passages of woodwinds, which are very, very fast, and very shimmery. I think it makes me to connect to the essence of what Beethoven, I think, felt most of his life.

And then that brings, of course, to the central movement of the Seventh, which is, I think, the second movement, which is this funeral march, which, I think, when I personally looked to it like, you know, the funeral march of the Third Symphony and then the Seventh, I think is a kind of a feeling that the Third Symphony, it's maybe, it's more global. But I think I feel that the Seventh Symphony is, I find that this is a funeral march to himself. If the Third is more global, then I find the Seventh ... he's writing a funeral march for himself. It kind of feels this lamenting this, from one side [sings], which is his destiny, heart beats or the bells of a funeral. And then they have as a contrary to the theme, this expressive line of the legato, this other theme going [sings] ... It's really, it's like the whole body is heard, every movement of what to do. And I think this contrast what the second movement, with the death, [sings], obviously, which is also in Simon's piece, obviously very clearly in the bass section, you know, he uses, and then this shimmering [sings] it goes from the other side.

I think it makes the Seventh Symphony, in a certain sense, I can't say more tragic, because I think it has the death. And it has the last moment, which is something absolutely opposite to fight against death, you know, [sings] it's almost like running away from death, and I think he wants to escape. I think he wants to escape, I mean, the Fifth Symphony - arguably the last movement, I think, it has a victorious feeling where you have a feeling that it will be good. [sings] It just can't go any other way. Then he has the Sixth Symphony, with putting the spirituality and the nature as the salvation or something as a comfort, which is, again, is another feeling. And then the Seventh, which is, he's running away from the fate, you know. And it shows the genius of Beethoven. So, in its never-ending feeling, you know, you hear it when you're a child. And you have one feeling, and you think, yes, I think that's the music what he's talking about.

Then, you know a bit more. Then you start to think to find new colors. And now when I thought, well, we looked at the score from all the different possible ways, you know: playing it, conducting it, listening to it. And then you think, you know, we know the piece. And obviously, you know, this disastrous corona time, this pandemic is, I think it's opening, you know, the feeling of the values and the perspective of life in a very, very different light as well, as it allows us to look to the, also the, you know, the pieces of music in another perspective.

Brian McCreath is the Director of Production for CRB.