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Nelsons, the Boston Symphony, and the Intensity of Mahler

Andris Nelsons stands in front of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a black shirt with his baton raised. His arms are outstretched and his head is tilted back.
Andris Nelsons Photo: Marco Borggreve
Conductor Andris Nelsons

Saturday, September 9th, 2022
8:00 PM

In an encore broadcast, the Boston Symphony scales the depth and breadth of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 led by Music Director Andris Nelsons.

Andris Nelsons, conductor

Gustav MAHLER Symphony No. 6

This concert was originally broadcast on October 22nd, 2022 and is no longer available on demand.

Andris Nelsons talks with CRB's Brian McCreath about Mahler's Sixth Symphony, how its emotional power is different from the Fifth Symphony, and how his interpretation of the piece has changed over the years. Also, Nelsons talks about the BSO's upcoming tour to Japan, which include, coincidentally two pieces with major roles for ... cowbells (Mahler's Sixth Symphony and Strauss's Alpine Symphony). To listen, use the audio player above, and read the transcript below.


Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Andris Nelsons. And Andris, it's great to see you again and great to hear Mahler's Sixth Symphony. One of the the pieces that's a remarkable piece of music, but maybe, perhaps, less understood by audiences than other symphonies by Mahler. I'm curious about what draws you to Mahler's Sixth Symphony. What is it in the Symphony Number Six that you find really valuable and that you want to share with the audience?

Andris Nelsons Yes. Thank you. Thank you, Brian. It's always a great pleasure talking to you and for your radio program. Yes, it's very interesting because I think this is a symphony where, if you are following Mahler works, this is kind of shocking after the Fifth Symphony, what is following, and particularly the Finale and the hammer blows. And so, why? Because this time when he wrote [the] Sixth Symphony, already, during the writing of [the] Fifth Symphony, you know, he met Alma and he was in love, and it was a, probably with some fights I could imagine because there are some, some of them you can hear the score. [laughs] But seriously, we keep asking, I think everyone asks, why such a symphony? Why such a mood? Why? Why these destiny hammer blows?

Brian McCreath A very dark mood. He even called it "Tragic" at one point.

Andris Nelsons At one point, he called the symphony "Tragic." And I would say it's the darkest of his symphonies, certainly. And that makes us think, why? Why so? What happened? And I think that this is a sign of Mahler and his personality beyond almost, if I may say, beyond as Mahler, a man. I think he was a genius. And I think, in this symphony, maybe the connection, you feel that he's almost halfway gone somehow, or he somehow feels that something is going to happen. He almost predicts, I mean, again, these hammer blows, you know, one being the death of their daughter, which is absolutely a tragedy, and the loss of the job, which is also a very significant, problematic event.

Brian McCreath This was the job at the Vienna Opera.

Andris Nelsons Vienna Opera, yes. And of course, his health situation with his heart. And we know that, if he were to live today, that he probably would have lived longer because it would have been possible to fix that problem. But anyway, it's almost predicting his life and somehow him being a little bit distant from this world and already starting to connect with the world after this. But what is, I think, clear to me [is] that he was really afraid. I mean, he, I hear that this is a symphony where he's really afraid, that a lot of demons are coming and disturbing the hopes and destroying the harmonies. And the last movement, when he almost constantly writes "nicht schleppen" or "drägend," which means "don't drag," and he almost wants to go through this faster, faster, to... So it's this pain, or this dramatic moment stops. And there are few moments where the full orchestra plays a little moment, harmonic, and you feel that he has found the land at his feet.

Brian McCreath Solid ground.

Andris Nelsons Solid ground, yeah. But then again, it feels it's lost. And it's, again, I think there is this moment, I think, when we think of Buddhist monks, when they try to get close to nirvana. So, you know, you kind of come closer and closer to the truth. And, of course, Mahler, has his ways of getting, being answered the questions he has, or maybe not answered, because otherwise, why to write such a symphony in such a relatively happy moment. And of course, Alma was angry, and probably rightly so, you know. But of course, we have the evidence of the absolutely amazing work, which I think has changed not only Mahler's symphonies he is continuing, but, I think, generally the symphony, form of symphony, and influence so much. I mean, [the] last movement half an hour, and the first movement is almost half an hour. And then, two middle movements shorter. But it's a long, long symphony, and a long journey.

Brian McCreath I remember when you conducted the BSO in this piece, I think about seven years ago, something like that, I think 2015. And yes, it's dark at the end and there are these hammer blows. But before you get there, there's so much passionate music. And I remember seeing you conduct this and it's as though you were grasping every bit of life you could out of the symphony. And maybe that's part of why audiences find meaning in it, that there's so much life in it before that ending.

Andris Nelsons Yes. I mean, you see, it's very interesting how people change sometimes, analyzing music. And what does it say to us after ten years or after five, you know, at this stage? Now, when I come back to the symphony, and maybe in this particular time in life, where, you know, thoughts about reason of life, death, and love and compassion, and in the same time, despair, it's so close together, that you almost think, well, I can understand Mahler. I mean, maybe it's too arrogant to say that, but now I look to the symphony, I think it's, even in the first movement, the second subject, which is a, second theme, which is Alma's [sings].

Brian McCreath It's like a love song.

Andris Nelsons It's a love song, but this is not the same love song, for example, which is in the Fifth Symphony, where the Adagietto [sings], which ends in harmony and intimate, and so promising [of] wonderful times together. And that this is almost desperate, he writes "Appasionato," [sings] He's almost grabbing to this, that's maybe the only thing what brings him to life back? It is Alma and maybe his children. But it doesn't happen as a result of a relaxed and comfortable feeling. It comes from the necessity of grabbing for something you can be comforted by. And I think he's grabbing for these moments of comfort in the symphony. Either it's in the first movement, or, or of course... In this case, we do the Scherzo as the second movement, and the Andante as the third movement. And of course, in the third movement, they are so, so beautiful and so fantastic moments. But even then, there are moments when you [sings], where he is almost running for this great music, "please don't go away, please stay, stay." You know, this is the feeling I get in this. And it stays for a while, but then it fades out and... And the fourth movement [sings]. It's yelling and it's like a hammer and reality.

So if something has changed since these last seven years, for me, Number Six has become more dramatic, even, if I must say. Or maybe even, because of that, even more contrasted. I mean, the moments of intimacy and of beauty, of security are so little, and then so dear. And then, I therefore, I want to invite our wonderful audience to listen, either here in Symphony Hall or on radio, that you experience this great Mahler symphony, and you find the connection with the symphony yourself. And maybe for you, you will find this symphony the most comforting, or you would be in love with this symphony. Or you also would see the dramatic moments, and...

The great thing, again, I keep repeating, is that it's your secret between you, as a listener, and the composer, through musicians who play on stage. What do you feel? How do you feel? And it becomes your secrets, what, you know, you can share with people what you thought about the concert, what you think about that music. You can keep it a secret, and nobody can say, "Oh, this is the wrong way. You listened it wrong." You know [laughs]. It's maybe different people find different accents and different emphasis on different times of periods of life.

Brian McCreath That's fantastic. That's a great perspective. You're right. The experience that someone has in the concert hall, or over the radio, or wherever, is their private experience. It doesn't matter what anybody else really thinks. It's their own private experience. That's true.

The other thing about Mahler's Symphony Number Six is that it's amazing to hear a great orchestra play it, simply on the grounds of the performance itself. It pushes every part of the orchestra, it stretches the orchestra, it pushes every player on stage. It's one of the pieces that you're taking on a tour to Japan. And I want to ask you about touring. You've done, I don't even know how many, tons of tours with the BSO, with Leipzig, in your days, with the City of Birmingham Symphony, you've done tons of tours. What is the experience like of playing a piece like the Mahler in Symphony Hall, but then, you'll play it again in Japan. It's actually the first concert of your tour in Yokohama that you'll be playing this, and then you'll be playing it again later in the tour. What is that experience like? Do you find that the symphony changes a little bit? Do you find a different audience reaction sometimes to pieces that you are maybe surprised by? How does touring and performance work together for you?

Andris Nelsons Yes, I think I personally really love touring, I must say. I always loved it. And there's several reasons. I mean, firstly, you, before the tour, you prepare, you always want to prepare well and and everyone prepares technically, musically well to be ready for the tour. And there is, of course, also excitement to go to, in this case, Japan is wonderful. It's wonderful people, wonderful food, wonderful concert halls, very interested audience who are very dedicated to classical music and interested in classical music already for many years. And of course, Boston Symphony Orchestra and Japan is another love because of Seiji Ozawa. And then that is also a very exciting fact for us.

Brian McCreath It's amazing that, all these years after Seiji left the BSO, there's still that fan base for the Boston Symphony in Japan. They remember this. It's just carried on since then. We know that actually from the radio, too, that we hear from people in Japan that they love the Boston Symphony. So there's something special there.

Andris Nelsons Yeah, there is something special, yes. And I think also, the dedication of the audience from Japan, they really love the orchestra. And again, we play three programs in this case. One is Mahler's Sixth Symphony. The other is Beethoven's Piano Concerto Number Five, with Mitsuko Uchida, and then Shostakovich's Symphony Number Five. And then one more concert is Mozart's Symphony Number 40 and Alpine Symphony, [by] Richard Strauss.

Brian McCreath And also the Caroline Shaw.

Andris Nelsons And Caroline Shaw's Punctum, yes, that's right, yeah. These are three very big programs, with big orchestra. It presents the orchestra through these pieces in the full range, from the last stand of First Violins till the Percussion. And there's so many people playing and...

Brian McCreath Lots of cowbells in this tour.

Andris Nelsons Also lots of cowbells. Yes, lots of cowbells, and even organ is part of Alpine Symphony. And in this case we perform all three programs twice. And each time you perform, I think you find something new, and you give your maximum and you can find some interesting colors, which maybe you didn't notice before. And also if you bring the name of Boston around the world, and we are very proud of our city and, that's always wonderful. And then at the end of the tour, when we come home, we come to the stage to play again and play different repertoire. And there is even more excitement because everyone has been together for two weeks intensively playing. The level, I think, and the temperature of excitement is even more than as, let's say, orchestra wouldn't have toured.

So I think this is very important. Touring is not only, you know, as a messenger, you know, and and saying, look, that's our orchestra and just presenting. It's artistically very important and emotionally important. It's almost like getting some... As a human being, I think it's nice to go sometimes, you know, near the sea, to go with the oceans. You get oxygen, extra oxygen, which you need. And you don't walk near the ocean every day, but you [do] time to time. And I think going on tour, it almost feels like, you go, and it gives you [exhales heavily] this extra kind of something, extra oxygen, extra opportunity to play it the other way, or to play it again, and to enjoy it. And then you come back. You are, you have recovered better and you are ready for going on again, fully, with any other repertoire later. So I think it's very healthy and very good to do touring, even in these, I know in these times it's getting more difficult and that certain financial things and, but, some people saying maybe the tours is not so important. And so, I am the person who's saying that these, the tours are important, and will be important, and we need to do. And thanks God, we have wonderful trustees and supporters who make it possible that we can tour. And that's just a part of an orchestra's life.

Brian McCreath As someone who hasn't been to Japan. I'm just curious about one specific part of the tour. What is it like, I've always been curious, what is Suntory Hall like in Tokyo? You've no doubt done many concerts in Suntory Hall. Do you remember it well enough to be able to say what it's like to play there? Maybe compared to Symphony Hall?

Andris Nelsons Yeah. Well, Suntory Hall is, I think, is one of the best concert halls in the world, that's for sure. It's obviously different. It's a modern concert hall and it's very intimate. You can hear the details very well, but also it blends well together. So it's one of the greatest halls. Very different than Boston because Boston is built in an absolutely different time. And, but from more, let's say, from the more modern halls, the Suntory Hall is one of the best.

Brian McCreath And you're doing all three programs there. So that's got to be a real pleasure for the orchestra to play in different hall, but also a really excellent hall. It's really fun for the orchestra to do that.

Andris Nelsons Yeah, because I think it's interesting for the orchestra like Boston, who, we play mostly, of course, here, in Boston Symphony Hall, which is an amazing hall. But it's a so-called shoebox.

Brian McCreath Shoebox. Yeah.

Andris Nelsons And that's amazing hall. But then we go, interesting to go to the more modern [halls], like the Berlin Philharmonic or Lucerne or...

Brian McCreath Or Leipzig even.

Andris Nelsons Or Leipzig even. Or Suntory, which is a more modern and still very good halls. But, they maybe are more intimate in a certain sense. They are sometimes more transparent. And you can hear absolutely every tiny detail. And that's also interesting, also for listeners to experience, and for [the] orchestra to experience to get used to all the other type of halls, and then coming back to enjoy what we have here. So our Symphony Hall is the best, you know. [laughs]

Brian McCreath That's great, that's great. Andris Nelsons, thanks a lot for your time. I love hearing your thoughts on the Mahler and on your tour coming up. So thanks, thanks very much.

Andris Nelsons Thank you. It was a great pleasure. Thank you.