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Andris Nelsons

Andris Nelsons made his hugely anticipated debut as the CBSO’s Musical Director on Wednesday in front of a packed Symphony Hall. Steve Beauchampé cocks his ear.

Almost exactly year after so impressing CBSO management when he guest conducted the orchestra for an acoustic test at the Town Hall, a performance which secured his appointment as successor to the much-loved Sakari Oramo, 29 year-old Latvian Andris Nelsons strode on to the Symphony Hall stage to the great expectations of Birmingham’s classical music cognoscenti.

With his reputation for flamboyance and energy on the podium cemented by an appearance as CBSO guest conductor in March, a thrilling ride was expected, though how Nelsons’ permanent posting will impact on the band’s playing style will take longer to determine.

Aside from conducting, Nelsons is both a accomplished trumpeter and baritone, but his overriding musical passion is opera, and tonight’s dramatically themed programme reflects that, packed as it is with ample opportunities for intense, theatrical interplay between orchestra and conductor.

First on is Richard Wagner, and while we don’t get the full six-hour version of Rienzi, his third opera, the Overture is easily sufficient to remove any doubts as to the rumbustiousness of Nelsons’ approach.

From its ominous, rumbling opening, our man is hunched over the score ready to pounce like a febrile cat, eyes everywhere at once. As the piece builds (and oh, the layers of drama that unfolds as it does) Nelsons uses his entire body to transfuse the score’s intensity into the hands and mouths of the orchestra; the eyes, the cheeks, the mouth, all transmitting messages to the players,

Wagner’s tale of revolution and popular uprising is ladled with menace and the CBSO deliver it in spades, exhorted, egged on by their new MD: ‘Come on, give me more, you can do this, you know you want to!’

The frenzied opening to the Suite from Bartok’s Magnificent Mandarin ballet (a piece sometimes referred to as dance drama) evokes a film noir chase, Nelsons painting jagged shapes with both his baton and body, raising and lowering his hands, arching his back, free hand attending to the strings, baton concentrating on the brass and woodwind.

The piece falls into a slower, calmer mood, punctuated by explosive interludes, but even in the solo passages (in this case the oboe features heavily) Nelsons works as hard as when the entire Orchestra are in play.

The finale, where the Mandarin of Bartok’s story pursues the object of his heart’s desire (a whore, quite frankly), sees the entire orchestra involved in the hunt, energised and animated by Nelsons, playing for him, the audience welcome - though irrelevant - bystanders to the white hot interplay.

The evening’s centrepiece is a performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, in five movements.

A macabre tale inspired by the composer’s unrequited love for Irish actress Harriet Smithson, the 55-minute score moves from the optimism of early acquaintance, as defined by melodic phrases on flute, violin, and later a waltz, to the darker subtext of the 4th and 5th movements, when Smithson is murdered and Bartok, the composer anti-hero, guillotined for the crime.

Again, Nelsons uses the drawing of his breath and puffing of his cheeks as part of the conductor’s armoury of signals.

At times he’s crouching so much that he can make direct eye contact with the lower strings, rising to muster all of the CBSO’s forces with the swish of his cane, a clench of his fist, transferring the baton to his left hand to punch the air with his right, then the funereal bell (a wonderfully off-kilter steel drum) that signals the killer’s demise, satanic horns, and Nelsons’ prowling the podium cajoling one last searing climax of sound from his team.

Then five minutes of sustained applause - and back here on Saturday to do it all again.

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