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Andris Nelsons: Workaholic? Or, Something Else Entirely?

It is nice to see that 36-year-old Andris Nelsons, who just completed his first season as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is getting the orchestra to play like they are at the top of their game, following years of low morale with the constantly ailing and concert-canceling former music director James Levine. We can see the BSO’s excellence from this excerpt provided by Carnegie Hall’s YouTube channel of Nelsons conducting the BSO in the Shostakovich Symphony No 10 earlier this year. And Nelsons has just already renewed his contract for several more years, up to 2022.

But now we hear that he is taking on an equal position with another orchestra, not as “principal guest conductor” as many of the symphony conductors do, but as “music director,” with similar busy duties and performance schedule as he has with the BSO. That other orchestra is all the way over in Europe as well, the prestigious Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

Hmm, perhaps he could have waited a few more years after firmly establishing a relationship with the Boston Symphony? Now, is this just a case of Nelsons easily enduring his first big season with Boston followed by their successful European tour, and accepting the other position as well because he feels he can handle the load and that each job might very well complement the other? Or might this be another case of some young 30-something hotshot with an “I want it all, and I want it all now” attitude, not being realistic in his assessment of his own abilities, and for quite a few years to come? The Boston Symphony Orchestra has already been through enough with Levine and former music director Seiji Ozawa to not want to go through all that again: a tired, overworked, jet-lagged conductor, cancelling weeks and weeks of performances or otherwise not giving it his best, because of juggling too many responsibilities at the same time.

For example, just after the conclusion of a BSO performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in 2006, James Levine, who was the BSO’s music director from 2004 to 2011 at the same time he continued to lead the Metropolitan Opera in New York, tripped and fell on his way back stage, and hurt his shoulder and required surgery. This issue was in addition to his weight gain and complaining of sciatica. He then had to cancel four months of concerts. In July 2008, Levine had surgery to remove a cancerous kidney and he fully recovered from that. However, just a year later in September 2009 he had to cancel his Fall concerts for two months because of surgery on his back, a herniated disc. He cancelled much of the 2009-2010 season for both the BSO and the Met, in fact, because of continuing back problems including more surgery. Later, he canceled the second half of his 2010-2011 season because of continuing trouble with his back. In March 2011 it was finally announced that Levine would resign from the BSO but continue with the Met. By that time, Levine had already neglected to sign the contract extension that had been negotiated.

And previous to Levine was Seiji Ozawa who was the BSO’s music director from 1973 to 2003. As I wrote in this post, Ozawa also had long absences from the BSO for medical reasons, exhaustion, tendinitis, and back troubles. Since being BSO’s director Ozawa had suffered from esophageal cancer, shingles, pneumonia, and more back trouble.

But Ozawa seems to have overcome much of that, as we can see in his recent performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. And James Levine also seems to have recovered healthwise and made a big comeback at Carnegie Hall in 2013, and with the Metropolitan Opera this past season.

Back to Andris Nelsons, who has already experienced something similar to Levine’s tumble and shoulder surgery. In July 2013, only two months after signing his first contract with the BSO, Nelsons got a concussion during an accident with a door in his residence. This article states that the door “unexpectedly swung open,” but this later article quotes his wife, the opera singer Kristine Opolais, as clarifying the situation, stating that “It was dark and the door was closed and he didn’t see it … He’s big and he’s like a big child. It is comic.” So now we know he’s a big ‘ol klutz. And he had to cancel his very first post-contract-signing BSO concert at Tanglewood that Summer. Also like James Levine, after Nelsons’s door-accident concussion Nelsons ballooned to a huge 260 lbs. I hope he’s lost some of that extra weight, as one contributor to Levine’s constant health issues was his being overweight.

And more recently, this past June Nelsons canceled his first of several final appearances with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, of which he was music director for seven years, because he had an acute ear infection. (Coincidentally, James Levine also had to cancel performances last July at the Verbier festival in Switzerland, because of … an ear infection.)

Well, I hope these aren’t early signs that Nelsons is another workaholic who doesn’t take care of himself. Or is the Boston Symphony jinxed in some way? Or maybe this is all some sort of hex by the ghosts of past BSO music director Karl Muck, who was interned along with 30 German BSO members by the nationalistic fanatics during World War I? (Ghosts? Has George Noory covered this?)

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