Andris Nelsons - Biography

Meticulous preparation, galvanising leadership and performances that flow straight from the heart are all central to the art of Andris Nelsons. The Latvian conductor is Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Gewandhauskapellmeister of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig.

The conductor’s association with the latter orchestra began with an acclaimed debut concert in 2011 and continued to develop thereafter with regular guest-conducting dates, leading to his appointment as the 21st Gewandhauskapellmeister in February 2018. During the four-week festival that marked both the orchestra’s 275th anniversary and his own official inauguration, Nelsons conducted no fewer than eleven concerts, with five different programmes, combining core repertoire with the world premieres of three new works and giving audiences a taste of the energy and musical diversity he has since continued to bring to the role. Reviewing one of two concerts he and the Gewandhausorchester gave at the Royal Festival Hall last October, for example, The Guardian lauded Nelsons for the “power and theatricality” he brought to Mahler’s First Symphony, singling out the final movement for particular praise: “the finale was irresistible, sweeping all before it on a flood of brass tone that never overwhelmed the rest of the orchestral picture”.

In addition to critical praise and audience ovations, one of the strongest measures of Nelsons’ success is the speed with which he is able to forge close and productive relationships with experienced orchestral musicians. He established an immediate rapport with the Boston Symphony Orchestra when they first worked together in March 2011, an affinity which strengthened over the following two seasons with performances at the Tanglewood Festival and Boston’s Symphony Hall. Nelsons was subsequently appointed as the BSO’s fifteenth Music Director and launched his tenure at the beginning of the 2014–15 season. After only one year, his contract was extended through the 2021–22 season. He has since led the orchestra on two European tours and embarked on a third one in September 2018, conducting twelve concerts in eight cities.

His appointment as Gewandhauskapellmeister heralded an alliance between the Leipzig and Boston orchestras, encompassing co-commissions and educational initiatives as well as shared and complementary programming. Nelsons plans to oversee the cultural exchanges between the two institutions and lead them on frequent transatlantic tours, enabling the BSO players to perform at the Gewandhaus and their German counterparts to appear at Symphony Hall. He sees the new alliance as “a unique opportunity to explore each orchestra’s great music traditions, as well as create exciting and meaningful new experiences for audiences … around the world”.

Andris Nelsons also regularly collaborates with the Wiener Philharmoniker, Berliner Philharmoniker and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. He returned to Covent Garden in June 2018 to conduct the Royal Opera House’s new staging of Lohengrin, garnering praise from the Guardian: “Nelsons’ gloriously comprehensive conducting, full of moments of quiet, rapt intensity and surging, tremulous excitement … is one of this new production’s biggest plusses of all”. Highlights of the current season include performances at the helm of the BSO in Boston of Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No.1 with Lisa Batiashvili, Schumann’s Piano Concerto with Yuja Wang (both February) and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.3 with Daniil Trifonov (April); Beethoven’s First, Second, Fourth and Fifth Symphonies with the Wiener Philharmoniker at the Vienna Musikverein (March); his first tour with the Gewandhausorchester of Japan and China (May/June); and Scriabin’s Piano Concerto with Trifonov and the Berliner Philharmoniker in Berlin (June). In 2020 Nelsons will return to Vienna to perform all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies with the Wiener Philharmoniker, celebrating the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. He will also conduct the orchestra’s prestigious New Year’s Day concert, broadcast to millions worldwide.

In May 2016, the conductor signed an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon, paving the way for landmark projects with both the BSO and the Gewandhausorchester:

Nelsons and the BSO are recording the complete Shostakovich symphonies, and the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District. The first album – released as part of a Shostakovich Under Stalin’s Shadow series – was a live recording of Symphony No.10, which won the Grammy Award for “Best Orchestral Performance” in February 2016. The album’s successor, issued in May 2016, presented accounts of the Russian composer’s Fifth, Eighth and Ninth Symphonies and the Suite from Hamlet, and in 2017 won the cycle’s second Grammy Award, again in the “Best Orchestral Performance” category. The third release in the Shostakovich edition, comprising the Fourth and Eleventh Symphonies, appeared in July 2018, and has recently made it three in a row at the Grammys, winning not just one but two awards (“Best Orchestral Performance” and “Best Engineered Album, Classical”). The fourth, a double-disc set of the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, the Suite from the Incidental Music to King Lear and the Festive Overture was released on 22 February 2019.

Nelsons is also recording the symphonies of Anton Bruckner with the Gewandhausorchester. The series, each of whose recordings pairs one of the symphonies with an excerpt from a Wagner opera, was launched to critical acclaim in May 2017 with the release of the Austrian composer’s Symphony No.3 (coupled with the Overture to Tannhäuser). Gramophone praised Nelsons’ work on this first instalment: “As a Bruckner interpreter, [he] is direct, clear-sighted and spacious, the performance guided with a sure hand and a sense of inevitability but also meticulous in observing tempo and dynamic markings.” The second album in the series, pairing Bruckner’s Symphony No.4 with the Lohengrin Prelude, was issued in February 2018, while the third, featuring Symphony No.7 and Siegfried’s Funeral March from Götterdämmerung, was released two months later. The fourth release, a double album featuring Bruckner’s Sixth and Ninth Symphonies together with Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and the Prelude to Parsifal, will be issued on 3 May 2019. 

Andris Nelsons was born into a musical family in Riga in November 1978. He studied piano during his childhood and later made swift progress as a trumpeter, performing with the Latvian National Opera Orchestra as a teenager and developing a player’s understanding of the orchestral profession. His early conducting experience was shaped under the supervision of Mariss Jansons, who became his teacher and guide. Nelsons made his conducting debut with the Latvian National Opera at the age of 21 and became the company’s music director two years later. News of the young conductor’s visionary performances of German and Slavic repertoire in Latvia and as Principal Conductor of the Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie reached the UK and led to his appointment as Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (2008–15). Nelsons’ years at the helm of the CBSO established him as the sought-after conductor he is today, and his services to music in the UK were recently recognised with the award of an honorary OBE, which was presented to him at a ceremony at the Royal Festival Hall last October.