BSO names Andris Nelsons music director, succeeding James Levine

The Boston Symphony Orchestra announced Thursday that it has chosen Andris Nelsons to be the 15th music director in its 132-year history — giving the BSO its youngest conductor in a century.

The long-awaited move came more than two years after James Levine last took the podium in Boston, a tenure marked by great artistic renewal before health problems forced the aging maestro to resign.

In Nelsons, the BSO is getting a conductor who, at 34, is half Levine’s age, eager to make his mark, and already focused on turning Boston into his professional home base.

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“I think it’s very important to be part of the Boston society and the people who live in Boston,” he said. “I always feel that music is food for our souls, and [Bostonians] will be hungry.”

The contract will allow Nelsons to serve as a principal guest conductor elsewhere, but makes specific mention that his primary artistic home will be Boston. This is a notable difference from Levine’s tenure; his loyalties were split between the Metropolitan Opera and the BSO.

Mark Volpe, the BSO’s managing director, said it was important the orchestra have a new leader, and he believes Nelsons will inspire both the players and the public.

“People respond to personalities,” Volpe said. “You want a great musical force, you want somebody who is incredibly well trained, but let’s not kid ourselves. People respond to personalities. Watch a video of him conducting. It’s visceral, it’s exciting.”

Nelsons has conducted around the world and has been music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra since 2008. He spoke Thursday by phone from Amsterdam, where he is conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.

News of his hiring broke Thursday morning when BSO board chairman Ted Kelly gathered the players to announce the choice just before a Boston Pops rehearsal. The news drew applause from the players.

The selection itself was closely guarded, with even Nelsons told not to tell anybody until after the orchestra had been informed. The BSO sent Levine a letter telling him of the news, out of courtesy, a few minutes later.

The orchestra’s search committee recommended the hiring of Nelsons in late April, but the conductor’s busy schedule delayed contract negotiations until this past weekend in London. Thursday morning, BSO trustees unanimously approved the contract, which will see Nelsons leading 12 weeks of programs during the BSO season as well as leading concerts at Tanglewood, the orchestra’s summer home.

The five-year contract is set to begin during the 2014-2015 season. BSO officials would not release financial terms.

Volpe noted that, at 34, Nelsons is in a different position than Levine, now 69, was when he was hired. By the time Levine stepped down, his health issues, injuries sustained from falls and a condition related to Parkinson’s disease, had forced him to cancel often. When Levine did conduct, he did so from a chair.

“You’re getting somebody with enormous upside who has an enormous future in front of him and it’ll be wonderful to be part of that future,” Volpe said.

Nelsons made his BSO debut in 2011, leading the orchestra in Mahler’s “Symphony No. 9” at Carnegie Hall. This summer, he will conduct at Tanglewood, leading the BSO and Tanglewood Festival Chorus in a performance of Verdi’s monumental “Requiem” on July 27. His wife, Kristine Opolais, will be the soprano soloist.

During his first season as music director, Nelsons will lead eight to 10 weeks of programs in Symphony Hall. That’s the last year he will serve as music director in Birmingham. In future years, he will lead 12 weeks of programs.

Nelsons is known for his wide-ranging repertoire. In Thursday’s phone interview, he ticked off a list of classical composers he loves to conduct, including Mozart, Haydn, Brahms, Mahler, Bruckner, Bartok, and Tchaikovsky.

Asked about his favorite contemporary composers, Nelsons named British-born Mark-Anthony Turnage, Finland’s Magnus Lindberg, and Australian composer Brett Dean.

“I can’t say I’d like to concentrate on one particular composer,” Nelsons said. “I’m looking forward to doing a variety. It’s important for me that it’s a combination of great historical pieces with sometimes contemporary pieces.”

Though Nelsons and Levine both speak of their passion for music, the differences, off the podium, are considerable. Levine listened to little other than classical music, rarely was spotted outside Symphony Hall — save for post-concert dinners — and spent most of his time with his brother, Tom.

Nelsons is not ashamed to profess his admiration for Michael Jackson and Sting, talks eagerly of attending a Boston Bruins game, and said he’s prone to watching “Friends” and “Frasier” reruns in his downtime.

He and Opolais, who recently made her debut with the Metropolitan Opera, have a daughter, Adriana, 17 months old. In an interview, Nelsons did not rule out purchasing a home in the Boston area. (They live now in Riga, the capital of Latvia.) With Opolais singing regularly at the Met and Nelsons in Boston, they’ll be establishing a musical center on the East Coast.

“The two most important things is one the music in my life and the family,” he said. “It’s somehow connected because music is about human beings, about love, about hate, about everything that happens in life.”

On Thursday, a pair of BSO players who were on the selection committee discussed Nelsons. They pointed to both his approach on the podium and his clear desire to build a relationship with the BSO and the city.

Violinist Malcolm Lowe, the BSO’s concertmaster, said that Nelsons’s collaborative approach came through earlier this year when he came to Symphony Hall to lead a series of concerts that included Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 5.” He praised the way Nelsons structured a section of the piece, allowing room for principal horn Jamie Sommerville’s solo.

“It’s a feeling I got on stage where you feel totally supported, totally free — not to play any old way, there’s a structure there still — but there’s no fear in it, which is so critical and really great,” Lowe said. “He just laid down this beautiful carpet for Jamie to come in and play this beautiful solo. It was perfect that way.”

Sommerville, another member of the search committee, said he considered the challenges brought on by the Levine tenure during the process.

“I think it’s fair to say that we, as an institution, wanted someone who would bring a lot of vitality, physical vitality to the position, and someone who we could really feel was going to really take on the role of being a Bostonian,” he said. “To really be here.”

The BSO’s search has been closely guarded and the orchestra’s management has never confirmed the list of finalists, though attention has largely centered on Vladimir Jurowski, Stephane Deneve, and Daniele Gatti.

Nelsons has always had a strong connection to music. His father is a cellist, his mother is the founder of an early music group in Latvia, and his stepfather took him to his first opera. It was Wagner, a composer he loves to present. In October, as music director designate, Nelsons will conduct Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll” in Symphony Hall.

While that love of concert opera is something he shares with Levine, Nelsons’ management approach in Boston is likely to differ. He spoke Thursday of being closely involved in auditions for new musical posts. Levine almost never attended those.

“It’s so important which musicians we choose for being in the orchestra,” he said. “I will absolutely be involved as much as I can.”

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