ENCOUNTERS by George Sturm
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 educationthey
were perfectly bilingual, English being spoken at home and Spanish outside.
It is clear that Nelson's linguistic facilityas an operatic and choral conductor
it stands him in good steadgoes 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.