He's taking a step into Tanglewood spotlight

Erik Nielsen
Boston Globe

By Geoff Edgers

At first, Erik Nielsen worried about how the singers might react. They had been prepared to work with the maestro, famous for his opera productions. Would they ever accept the baby-faced kid from Iowa?

James Levine had left the Tanglewood Music Center on Monday, July 7, for emergency surgery to remove a kidney. By mid-week, he had picked Nielsen, one of the summer's three conducting fellows, to take his place for the three performances of Kurt Weill's satiric opera "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny." Ellen Highstein, Tanglewood's director, broke the news of Nielsen's appointment to the TMC vocal fellows. Groan. The singers asked if established conductors had been considered. No, Highstein told them. Levine wanted Nielsen in the pit.

"They were disappointed but remember, Jim had confidence in Erik," said Highstein. "And as I told them, it would be a way of Jim keeping his hand in and keeping himself attached to what was very much his baby. And then I told them, 'I know you will all want to make him proud of us.' "

The grumbling stopped, which was all Nielsen needed.

"When I heard the singers were, in a sense, on my side, I thought, 'I can do this.' "

Tomorrow afternoon, Nielsen conducts the fellows' first performance of "Mahagonny," an opera dear to Levine. The BSO's music director conducted the first American production at the Met in 1979 and spent time with Lotte Lenya, Weill's widow. Originally, Nielsen, who has spent the last several years conducting in Germany, had been set to lead the TMC production vocalists for Sunday's closing performance. Instead, he will conduct the entire three-performance run.

That is a much more demanding role, said Stefan Asbury, who coordinates Tanglewood's conducting program.
"He's the guy in charge, not the guy following the guy in charge," he said. "Erik will set the parameters, the tempos, the balance, and the musical feeling."

Instead of counseling, Asbury said he has stepped back from Nielsen.

"I want to give him room," he said. "The pressure, it depends on whether you realize there's pressure. If you don't you're blissfully ignorant."

The "Mahagonny" run is a big break for the 31-year-old, who had himself expected the BSO would "pull in a conductor with a big name" to replace Levine.

The challenge, Nielsen says, is not in conducting the piece. "It's about becoming a motivating force in the production."

To his advantage, Nielsen visited for three-plus hours with the maestro last Saturday. In Levine's New York apartment, they watched DVDs of rehearsals, chatting about the production, and even looked over a few of the original scores in his collection. This week, Nielsen returned with a sense of purpose, and instructions from the master.

Levine's interest helped "Mahagonny" director and scenic designer Doug Fitch get over the disappointment of the maestro's abrupt exit.

"I'm thinking, 'OK, I'm working with the greatest conductor in the world, and now I'm working with somebody I've never met before,' " remembers Fitch. "But Erik's been absolutely great. As for Jimmy, there is this kind of ethereal presence that is really strong. The presence that passes through the airwaves."

Plus, Levine talked with Fitch by phone after Nielsen's visit.

Referencing Levine's precise yet unsparing attention to detail, Fitch recounted some of the phrases he remembers from the maestro's critique. "It sounds too wooly," Levine suggested about one phrase. "The space before the word 'no' is just too much," he said at another.

"We're talking about the breaking down of a sentence of dialogue," said Fitch.

Nielsen's chance to meet with Levine came about quite quickly. A few weeks earlier, Highstein had told Nielsen that Levine might be able to talk with him about the piece. But so much uncertainty surrounded the surgery and recovery. Then, during the middle of last week, Highstein asked Nielsen if he wanted to see Levine.

Saturday morning, Nielsen drove to Wassaic, and took the train to New York City. He called Levine from the station to make sure it was still OK to come over. Of course, the conductor told him. Once there, Nielsen was comforted by Levine's appearance.

"He looks great and he's totally on the mend," he said.

One benefit to sitting with his idol was to hear some of his own thoughts confirmed. Nielsen had been telling the orchestra to play shorter notes. He worried he was being too critical. Watching the film, Nielsen recounted, "I can't tell you how many times he said, 'Shorter, shorter.' I felt justified."

"I said, 'One musician is going to hate me if I say, play it shorter,' " said Nielsen. "He said, 'Let them hate you.' "

Back on the wooded Tanglewood grounds, Nielsen seems like a difficult guy to hate. Earlier this week, he showed up to a rehearsal looking as if he had been plucked from an Andrew McCarthy movie. He wore a pink Polo-style shirt tucked into his jeans, and white sneakers. He is clean-shaven with light hair trimmed neatly and parted at the side. He speaks softly.

One of his first musical memories is being mesmerized as he watched the choir director at a small Lutheran church. The boy would stand in the aisles and conduct his own performance. He says he cried at his first piano lesson, at 5, because he couldn't reach the pedals. He listened to Levine's records with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and, years later, watched in awe as Levine played piano during a recital with Jessye Norman.

Later, Nielsen studied oboe and harp at Juilliard, and got to know Levine by sitting in on the Met orchestra. In 2001, Nielsen moved to Germany and played harp in the Berlin Philharmonic. He has since moved on to Oper Frankfurt, where he conducts.

"He has been pretty much a dream," said Highstein. "He's been a very interesting combination of feeling he can do this and being confident but being pretty humble. How many conductors are, for heaven's sake?"

For his part, Nielsen calls his Saturday with Levine "one of the turning points of my life." But that doesn't remove the pressure of the production. He has stopped worrying about replacing Levine, and focused on the music.

"My role is reading the score and making sure everybody's doing it in the way a composer intended it to be done," he says. "If you're doing that, there's no time to think about anything else."