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ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
John Nelson

John Nelson

The year 1985 is being celebrated all over the world as a year of music. It is turning out also to be a festival year for conductor John Nelson who 1) has presided over the building and inauguration of Indianapolis's new Circle Theatre; 2) has directed the concert performance of Semele at Carnegie Hall's Handel Opera Festival (with Kathleen Battle, Marilyn Horne, Sylvia McNair, Rockwell Blake and Samuel Ramey) in February; 3) has returned to Carnegie Hall for a bonanza Bach celebration during Holy Week with the St. Matthew and St. John Passions and the B Minor Mass (on Easter Sunday); 4) has planned the 40th anniversary season of the Caramoor Festival of which he is music director; and 5) has taken on his first season as music director of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, the first conductor to be given this responsibility and title.

Last summer, John Nelson and his petite and bubbling wife Anita spent a few days in New York after his 15th season at the Aspen Choral Institute which he founded. They were en route to New York's Adirondack Mountains to pick up their two teen-age girls, Kirsten and Kari, from summer camp and, in one of those few leisurely pauses in an otherwise frenetic schedule, the 43-year-old conductor reminisced about the stages of his development and mused over the state of his art.

Nelson's first twelve years were spent in Costa Rica where he and his older brother were born to Protestant missionary parents. "They met in Costa Rica as single missionaries. My mother was there five years before my father arrived and they were prohibited from seeing each other lest they fall in love. They secretly met wherever they could, and when they announced their marriage plans, they didn't know if they would be expelled. They weren't and have lived most of their lives there." (His father died last year and his 84-year-old mother, who was on hand for the opening ceremonies of the Indianapolis season in the new hall, continues to live and to work there.) John's earliest musical experiences go back to the age of five when his parents bought a $50 Steinway upright, and it was also at this early age that he first developed a love which has never waned: among the few records in his parents' collection was the Robert Shaw recording of Bach's Christ lag in Todesbanden.

By the time John and his brother were old enough to go to high school — they were sent to Florida for that phase of their education—they were perfectly bilingual, English being spoken at home and Spanish outside. It is clear that Nelson's linguistic facility—as an operatic and choral conductor it stands him in good stead—goes back to those early days. Being away from his parents for the first time was no trauma for him, and he was never homesick, which testifies to the secure happiness of his childhood. While his musical training during the high school years was relatively unsophisticated, he was nevertheless becoming a proficient pianist with a fine voice and an unbounded love of music. On entering Wheaton College, he already knew that music was to be his life.

It was Wheaton that provided him with a link to the world of music. A conservative religious school, it had a conservatory of music which was very highly rated among small, private colleges, and it set such high standards in the various musical disciplines that, on entering Juilliard for his post-graduate work, Nelson found himself better prepared than most other students. The first person to recognize that he had all the qualities required of an outstanding musician had been John Finley Williamson, the venerable choral conductor who founded the Westminster Choir College in Princeton. (Nelson had spent three weeks there when he was still a junior in high school, and was selected by Williamson from a group of 150 youngsters nationwide as a young musician of unusual promise.) At Wheaton, he had a chance to substantiate the prognostications of the great man, conducting little ensembles, choral groups, and a church choir, and for the first time communicating music to large masses of participants. Here, too, he met another PK (preacher's kid), an English major with the greatest vitality and love of life that he had ever come across. Anita followed him to New York after her graduation, and they were married soon there after. "I sang at my wife's wedding! I wrote music to Elizabeth Barrett Browning's `How do I love thee' and sang it to her in front of 400 people."

At Juilliard, he began his studies as a choral conductor, soon added the dimension of opera he learned much from his association with the English director, Christopher West — and finally wound up as a Jean Morel student in orchestral conducting. (Before Juilliard, he had never so much as seen an opera. His first contact was when he sang the two-line part of the bootlegger in that school's production of Gianni Schicchi.)

Nelson's first public reputation was made as a choral conductor. As music director of the Pro Arte Chorale for ten years, he received high praise for his performances in the New York/New Jersey area of such works as Handel's Solomon (1969) and Israel in Egypt (1970), Bach's St. Matthew and St. John Passions (1971, 72), and the first New York performance ever of the complete Les Troyens of Berlioz in a concert performance in Carnegie Hall. When the dean of the Aspen Music Festival, Gordon Hardy, asked Nelson to form a chorus (in 1968), the results were so successful that the Aspen Choral Institute was created, and each year young Nelson would invite such master choral conductors as Robert Shaw, Robert Fountain, Howard Swan, Julius Herford and others to share the podium with him. "Herford's visit was a crucial experience for me. I had invited him to coach the St. John Passion. Instead, we spent 40 hours, one-to-one, discussing every aspect of the piece: the continuo, number of singers, meaning of text — everything." The holistic approach to music preparation has been with him ever since.

Although the next dimension to be publicly explored was opera — he had begun conducting it at Juilliard, the New York City Opera, Santa Fe and elsewhere — it was once again his choral experience which brought him to the Met. Nelson's Carnegie Hall performance of The Trojans so greatly impressed Rafael Kubelik and the Metropolitan's management that they asked him to train the massive choral forces for the 1973 production. When Kubelik fell ill after the first two performances, Nelson stepped in for a sudden debut. Subsequent Met productions included Jenufa, The Barber of Seville, Cav and Pag.

Simultaneous to his tenure with the Pro Arte Chorale, he was music director of the Greenwich (CT) Symphony Orchestra for a decade and, after a period of free-lancing with operas and orchestras here and abroad, he took on his first music directorship of a major orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, in 1975/76. "In this day and age, I think that ten to twelve years is long enough for anyone to be with any one organization. If anyone is a 'homebody,' it's me. I'm given to staying around and having long tenures. And I love to work consistently and watch things grow. I will have seen the Orchestra through its third season in the new hall. I think there needs to be a change, both for the Orchestra and for me. Having worked so hard as music director, I sense the musical toll which these demands take. I feel that I could grow faster and that I must grow more, musically. But I cannot do it at the same time as coping with the administrative burdens of the music directorship. At this time in my career, there is nothing more important than the deepening of my musical awareness. To me, there is no greater satisfaction than that, and I am increasingly frustrated to see how quickly I am sidetracked. I owe it to myself, at least for a few years, to be away from a major orchestra music directorship."

What did he feel were the pitfalls of the orchestral life? "The first thing that comes to mind is the knowledge that one cannot always attain the excellence that one envisages. I am beginning to understand the dynamics of players' thinking processes. Their European counterparts do not have to play pop concerts, they don't have 'runouts', or the variety of non-classical assignments which American orchestras require to keep the money flowing in. These demands are de-energizing for the orchestra and for the music director as well. But it is frustrating to come to rehearsals and see tired faces and people who don't put out or take initiative. The orchestra player sits and takes criticism for 2 1/2 hours. His musical prerogatives are few. There are seldom opportunities for him to make an individual contribution." And is there a solution? "Only to make music on the highest level, to be playing the greatest music, to have great conductors on the podium all the time. But we know that we can't have it that way, and even the greatest conductors aren't great all the time."

What about the allegation, widely bruited in articles and conversation, that they don't make conductors or soloists "like they used to" and that the age of superstars is over? "That's nonsense. The talent is the same. It's what society requires that may be different. On the one hand, music directors today are required to do more extramusical things than they did years ago. On the other hand, it takes less to satisfy an audience today. That's very puzzling because we have so much more at our disposal in the way of mass media, etc. Our audiences may be more intellectually understanding, but since they're not intimately involved with the music, they accept what they hear more easily than they used to. When have we last experienced riots or even strong emotions as a response to music? There's something unhealthily passive in our people today."

Not content with the "mere adequacy" of some performers or the passivity of some listeners, Nelson will often push for greater authenticity, keener insights, more genuine and direct means to express emotions. Case in point: Handel's Semele. He was not satisfied that the available performance materials provided sufficient information about the true nature of the work, its rhythms, tempos, ornamentation, etc. After searching for a musicologist on whom he could rely, he came up with Randy Mickelson in Venice, and the two of them pored over the score eleven hours a day. Mickelson, a Handel authority, had examined the primary sources in London and Hamburg and has quite remarkable ideas about Baroque tempos. Together they actually danced through the dance movements so that Nelson could physically feel how these pieces must have been performed in Handel's time. The result: Nelson's uncut performance is considerably shorter than the abridged performances of his colleagues. He has consulted with Berlioz scholar Hugh Macdonald on Les Troyens and Beatrice and Benedict. "I feel it's very important for us conductors and performers to attune to the musicological aspects of our business." Since publishers are able to make the intuition and scholarship of researchers available to performers, Nelson thinks that the choice of edition — he singles out Baerenreiter for praise — is important.

And what about the contemporary composer? "I'd like to think that the scene is changing because I'm very concerned. Back in the Baroque period, all the music one heard was written for that audience. The audience devoured it. Handel alone wrote 67 dramatic works, and people flocked to hear them. Now, when a new opera is presented, it's for the critics, and the audiences don't respond. The composers who write with more practicality are not viewed as part of the business. I hope that's changing. One of the great forces towards a change is the remarkable Meet The Composer program which puts composers in the middle of the working situation, the business of music, dealing with managements and constituencies, having to talk to them, to hear what they think, to respond to their ire. John Duffy [director of Meet The Composer] has told me that he has found composers' music changed after a period of residency with an orchestra. I believe that the everyday, close contact among composer, performer, and lay audience must have a salutary effect on all three groups. I have an inner commitment to the contemporary composer and his music, and I ache when I think that his energy is not being matched by the world in which he lives."

Listening to John Nelson speaking about his world, one cannot help but recognize his extraordinary compassion. His love and enthusiasm for the boundless energy of human beings in general, and for what he perceives as one of mankind's noblest expressions, music, are always in evidence; as are the genuine pain and sorrow he undergoes when contemplating our frailties and shortcomings which, being an integral part of us, are also inescapable in our art. It is perhaps the human condition which Nelson translates so instinctively into musical impulse when he conducts.

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