Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Andris Nelsons talks about Wagner, ‘Das Rheingold’

Wagnerian fever struck Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Andris Nelsons growing up in Latvia.

“I just love Wagner’s music,” Nelsons said in a recent interview. “It actually started very early. He was the first composer that I had a lot of exposure to because my parents introduced me to Wagner’s music at an early age. I was only five years old when they took to ‘Tannhauser’ at the Riga Opera.”

“After that I was listening to ‘Parsifal’ on records when I was five or six years old. His music and The Ring – his music was very close to me emotionally.”

The Ring is the name used for Wagner’s monumental four-part, 15-hour epic opera about the battle between good and evil, greed and love, power and glory. Even if you’ve never heard or seen The Ring, you’re probably familiar with some of Wagner’s hypnotic and powerful music. The Ride of the Valkyries scene alone from “Die Walkure” has been used in everything from “The Blues Brothers” to Bugs Bunny.

Most opera companies only perform The Ring Cycle (another name for the four operas) every few years, as it is such a monumental undertaking for singers and musicians.

They are also often a major engagement for opera fans, who often travel the world to see complete Ring cycles in London or New York, Berlin or Bayreuth, the Bavarian village where Wagner built a theater especially for performances of his operas, in particular The Ring. Cycle.

That’s why it’s so rare for the Boston Symphony Orchestra to perform a concert version of The Ring Cycle’s first opera, “Das Rheingold” at Tanglewood on Saturday July 15 at 8 p.m.

Wagner’s music, particularly The Ring, continues to captivate audiences around the world nearly a century and a half later. Nelsons said he thinks it has to do with several things, including Wagner’s compelling music.

“I think the main reason is that there’s a kind of mystical, almost narcotic feeling” to the music, Nelsons said. “It’s transcendental. It’s kind of a feeling with the music. All of these things come together mystically.”

“With the length of some of his operas, he kind of brings you into this world of his music, his sonic world. And you’re absolutely not paralyzed but you’re in the hands of this music. You follow that and you just want to go on and on.”

Nelsons admits that some opera-goers are intimidated by the length of some of Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas. While “Das Rheingold” is less than three hours long, “Siegfried” and “Gotterdammerung” each last over six hours.

“I think there’s always a point in his music when you listen to it…when you think, ‘Oh my God, that’s long,'” Nelsons said. “But if you get over that point, it’s like a long marathon. And Wagner always gives you a second wind, and then you keep going and you’re absolutely in his musical world and you can’t stop and you can listen for four hours , five o’clock, six o’clock and then you’re like in his mystical hands of his music. He’s such a great poet of music. I think it’s almost like a narcotic.

Strangely, conducting Wagner’s music feels different, Nelsons said. “The music goes faster and it’s a great joy to conduct Wagner.”

Nelsons previously conducted the first three operas in Wagner’s Ring Cycle when he was Music Director of the Latvian National Opera in Riga, Latvia, from 2003 to 2007. He did not conduct the last opera in the cycle, ” Gotterdammerung”, since leaving Riga to become the conductor of the Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Birmingham, England, from 2008 to 2015. Nelsons has been the Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra since 2014.

And long before Nelsons conducted Wagner, he played the trumpet role in many of Wagner’s operas as a trumpeter in the Latvian National Opera Orchestra. When asked what it was like to play Wagner’s music, Nelsons started humming different trumpet parts in different Wagner operas.

“Ah, that’s beautiful,” Nelsons said after singing trumpet in the opener to Wagner’s “Parsifal.”

Nelsons added that he thought the themes and subject matter of “Das Rheingold” particularly resonated with audiences. “I think ‘Rheingold’ has a symbolic meaning of what happens in the world when you run after rhinegold, after gold,” Nelsons said. “It doesn’t end very well. It’s kind of a reminder of the values ​​of life and I think The Ring is kind of a Wagner prediction of what would happen in the world. And I think we don’t we’re not far from that.”

Many opera companies often set “Das Rheingold” in a natural setting, with trees or mountains on stage. That’s part of why Nelsons said he thinks the idyllic grounds of Tanglewood are a perfect fit for ‘Das Rheingold’ and The Ring in general. “You just enjoy the music and look around and it’s all there,” Nelsons said.

So, is “Das Rheingold” the start of a full ring cycle at Tanglewood? Can audiences expect to see ‘Walkure’, ‘Siegfried’ and ‘Gotterdammerung’ in the Berkshires in the future?

Maybe, Nelsons said.

“Yes, it’s absolutely possible,” Nelsons said. “That would be interesting, so we wanted to see how it started with ‘Das Rheingold’, to see how it developed. I’m sure the atmosphere in Tanglewood and the space there and nature – I think that fits perfectly to Wagner’s music. But we’ll see how it goes.”

Preparing for the July 15 performance of “Das Rheingold” took months of planning and more rehearsals than normal, Nelsons said. Fortunately, Nelsons and the BSO have some experience in presenting concert versions of operas.

In recent years, the BSO has performed concert versions of various operas in Boston. Last season, the BSO, soprano Rene Fleming and others under the direction of Nelsons performed Richard Strauss’ opera, ‘Der Rosenkavalier’. In previous seasons, the BSO, Nelsons and others performed two more Strauss operas: “Elektra” and “Salomé”.

And in each case, the BSO’s opera performances were enthusiastically received by audience members.

“I think audiences are really looking forward to” the concert version of the operas, Nelsons said. “They have a very big interest in continuing the opera concerts. They really like them and the orchestra loves playing opera because normally we don’t play a lot of opera because normally it’s not in our directory.”

Audiences also enjoy seeing operas, Nelsons said, because the quality of the music is “extremely high”.

“It’s not that easy to always put on such a high level of performance,” Nelsons said. “But in this case, when an orchestra as incredible as the Boston Symphony plays this music, they love it so much and they play it so well that it kind of shows opera from another angle and the audience loves it and the orchestra loves it and I’m very happy because I love opera anyway.

And while Nelsons enjoyed conducting all three Strauss operas, he admitted he was particularly looking forward to conducting Wagner at Tanglewood on July 15. “Playing opera, playing Wagner, it’s a great joy,” Nelson said.

He is also looking forward to spending more time at Tanglewood this summer as well.

“I’m very excited because I’ll be there for four weeks this summer at Tanglewood,” Nelsons said. “It’s always a lot of fun. The combination of high quality playing and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the students and the education. It’s really wonderful there. Every summer is always very special there. -low.”

The Boston Symphony Orchestra and singers under the direction of Andris Nelsons will perform a concert version of Wagner’s opera “Das Rheingold” on Saturday, July 15 at 8 p.m. at Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass. Tickets cost between $21 and $104. To order tickets or for more information, call 888-266-1200 or visit Boston Symphony Orchestra website.

About Roy B. Westling

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