The City of Birmingham (England) Symphony Orchestra made the little-known, now 29-year-old Latvian its music director, starting this fall, on the evidence of one private concert and a handful of rehearsals. According to the local press, the players fell in love instantly. Sony BMG rushed in to record an all-Tchaikovsky CD with the new team that weekend.
The Birmingham ensemble is perhaps hoping that it might have another Simon Rattle on its hands (after all, the orchestra hired Rattle when he was 25). And as in Rattle's case, the Los Angeles Philharmonic stepped up to give Nelsons some early American exposure Tuesday night at the Hollywood Bowl, with video cameras giving everyone a good look.
One thing seemed clear: Nelsons was pleased as punch to be there. He conducted Dvorák's Symphony No. 7 with a beaming expression on his face that one observer in England has appropriately likened to that of a kid with a new toy.
The most consistently appealing feature of this performance was a steady, strong rhythm -- not exactly Czech-flavored in its lilt, but enough to lift the boats.
Bobbing and weaving, frequently alternating between baton and bare hand, Nelsons conveyed plenty of joy and life but not much of the D-minor darkness of this symphony. Give him time -- more time than the Bowl's tight rehearsal schedule would allow.
Nelsons warmed up the 6,704 in attendance with a harmless bit of Bartók -- the composer's string arrangement of his Romanian Folk Dances, eight tiny pieces whipped into a modestly exciting froth with sharply angled accents.
However, the performance that really caught one's attention was French violinist Renaud Capuçon (also in his Bowl debut) making a fresh thing out of the overplayed Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. This was tremendous playing -- straightforward, unsentimental, yet beautifully shaded, surmounting all technical barriers with unshowy ease, a solid sustained line in the slow movement and genuine wit in the Rondo.
The printed program revealed that Capuçon was playing the 1737 Guarneri del Gesú violin that used to belong to Isaac Stern, so it was no wonder that its rich, generous tone, with a hint of an edge, sounded so familiar. Stern can rest easy; his fiddle has found a good home.