»It all started with the First Symphony!«

Mahler’s music has a special meaning for Andris Nelsons. The Gewandhauskapellmeister describes his life and career with Mahler’s symphonies from his first encounter to his interpretations with the Gewandhausorchester
and shares his thoughts on this music with Gewandhaus Dramaturg Ann-Katrin Zimmermann.

Do you remember your first encounter with Mahler’s music?

That came relatively late when I was 11. At that time, I had begun playing the trumpet and practiced martial arts like Taekwondo. In addition to the physical activity, I was interested in the philosophy, psychology, self-discipline and mysticism associated with martial arts, and I began searching for music for meditation. During the Soviet era it was hard to get recordings. A friend told me about a cassette with music that started with natural sounds, birdsongs and the like. He gave it to me – and that was Mahler’s First Symphony! I was thrilled by this mystical sense of nature at the beginning, this »Misterioso«! It quickly became clear to me that one of the greatest composers of all was behind these sounds. Then I got to know  all of Mahler’s symphonies, playing them on the trumpet, studying the scores and listening to recordings. But it all started with the First Symphony!

And as a conductor?

As a Latvian, I find singing essential. As a conductor, my path with Mahler therefore began with the 2nd Symphony, where the choir plays a vital role at the end. The same applies to the 8th Symphony, which I also conducted often and quite early.

Then it is certainly no coincidence that you will be performing these two symphonies with the Gewandhausorchester at the 2021 Mahler Festival in Leipzig?

That was a joint decision in the team. First of all, we took the wishes of our guests into consideration. Outstanding orchestras and conductors from all over the world are invited, all of whom have a special relationship to Mahler. We asked them which works they would like to contribute to the 2nd Mahler Festival in Leipzig. In the end, the festival line-up came together like a puzzle – and I am happy to be able to present the 2nd and 8th Symphony with the Gewandhausorchester. Overall, I am really looking forward to this festival: fabulous orchestras will join together in our Gewandhaus Hall to dedicate themselves to these great symphonies. We will be spending these days together, exchanging ideas and attending each other’s performances... We are meeting here in Leipzig to celebrate Mahler and his music as well as to offer the Leipzigers and their guests the opportunity to get to know fantastic artists. At the same time, our guests – musicians, music lovers, Mahler enthusiasts, tourists – have the chance to experience Leipzig, this wonderful city of music, which I have so taken to my heart. I am proud to welcome everyone here. Leipzig is not only a city of Bach and Mendelssohn. Mahler and many other composers have also spent an important part of their lives here. Not only will our guests in Leipzig be able to hear all of Mahler’s symphonies from leading orchestras in the world in a very short time, they will also be able to visit the house where Mahler lived while he was Second Kapellmeister at the Opera, follow Mahler’s footsteps and search for traces of his persona.

The fact that the various interpreters of Mahler’s symphonies take on different themes promises fascinatingly different approaches to his music.

Absolutely. Each orchestra has its history, tradition, and style of playing. You assume this as a conductor and at the same time let your own wealth of experience flow into it. What finally happens when you rehearse and perform a symphony together with an orchestra remains an inexplicable miracle. From performance to performance, from day to day, the interpretation changes. The heart beats differently every day...

Mahler calls for an enormous range of styles: popular music, military music, lied…

... and it is possible to trace his life through the compositions. Time and again his Bohemian nature comes to light. The next moment his music sounds Viennese, then suddenly Jewish roots become noticeable. Extreme events often collide: on one side of the street a funeral march passes by, while on the other side there is lively activity underway. Such tensions give rise to drama as well as irony and sarcasm in his music. Mahler was an extraordinarily gifted and at the same time a difficult person. When you read his affectionate love letters, you can hardly believe that they came from the same person who could be so irascible, relentless and hard.

Do the contradictions of his character and the global scope of his timeless themes, from death and transience to love and divine joy, explain why his music appeals directly to so many people at different times?

Personally, I believe that our time – which is rocked by harsh contrasts, in which much is false, or »fake«, in which both horrible and encouraging things happen – needs composers like Mahler. His music reflects this entire spectrum. It is directed at every single musician in the orchestra, at every single listener in the audience. This moment in which we encounter music directly, in which we allow ourselves to be moved and touched by it is decisive. Everyone can express his or her thoughts, feelings, cares and happiness with the music. The result is a tremendously intimate, trusting community between you, the composer and the music. Isn’t that wonderful?