John Nelson, conductor

Who or what inspired you to take up conducting and pursue a career in music?

The seed was planted in high school when I attended a three-week music camp at Westminster Choir College. At the end its famous conductor, John Finley Williams, looked intensely into my eyes and said, “young man, I’ve been watching you. You have something special. Do something with your talent”. It was like the voice of God. Two years later I was a piano major at Wheaton College in Chicago and the choir director, Dr. Rolf Espeseth, took me under his wings with pretty much the same challenge. He prepared me for studies at the Juilliard School where I later studied conducting and received two master’s degrees.

What, for you, is the most challenging part of being a conductor? And the most fulfilling aspect?

Getting unanimity and commitment from my musicians. The orchestra is a most complex organism with more than 20 distinctly different instruments and up to 100 highly trained players that must play precisely together under the dictatorship of one person. A very unnatural and undemocratic situation. And then when the conductor is much younger than the players, as is the case often these days, you have the potential for a very negative kind of tension. The music director of an orchestra is called “Maestro”, meaning “teacher”. But when is the teacher younger than his pupils? I am so happy now to be older than all the orchestral musicians I work with!

What is the most fulfilling aspect of conducting?

I can say unequivocally it’s inspiring my musicians to give their best in service to the composer. The composer is god, not the conductor!

How exactly do you communicate your ideas about a work to the orchestra?

There is no exact way. Every conductor has his/her personality, each orchestra its corporate personality. It’s like a marriage. One has to adjust to the other. Sometimes it works, other times not. I think if the conductor cares more about the composer than his/her self it will work and the orchestra will receive the instruction positively.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I just finished a tour to the Far East with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Of all performances, these will always stay in my memory because of the consummate skill of these players married to an extraordinary collegiality among the players. On one occasion the orchestra travelled 12 hours (because of traffic), got off the bus and played a two hour magnificent concert without complaint.

As for recordings, two will stand out – a St. Matthew Passion with a superb cast of singers and my Paris Orchestra, and the Les Troyens recording which we are celebrating with this article. I am very proud of both.

You’re releasing a complete version of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, with a magnificent cast, on November 24. Can you tell us a little about that project?

My manager, Stephen Wright, was the mastermind behind this immense project. He convinced Warner Classics and the Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra to commit to recording this five hour masterpiece. Berlioz has been a leitmotif in my career ever since I conducted the American premiere 45 years ago at Carnegie Hall and I have been privileged to conduct many productions in the intervening years. Alain Lanceron, head of Warner/Erato, and I collaborated on casting the sixteen singers, twelve of whom were French. Of the several fine recordings on the market this is the only really French one. In my estimation, Les Troyens is the greatest of French operas and deserves to be done with a French cast, French choruses and a French orchestra. The three weeks we immersed ourselves in this glorious music was easily the highlight of my life. Three weeks of bliss in which everyone showed an exceptional commitment.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

As music director I’ve had the privilege of programing what I like and do best, although it is essential for any orchestra to serve complete meals, and not just vegetables or just desserts. But now that I am just guest conducting (I have no music directorship) my repertoire choices are a bit of a song and dance with whatever orchestra I am engaged by.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I would be hard pressed to choose between Carnegie Hall, the Concertgebouw, and the Berlin Philharmonie. Fortunately, we live in a time of great acousticians who are giving us extraordinary halls like Birmingham and the new Philharmonie in Paris.

What is one piece that you’ve always wanted to conduct? And have you had that chance yet?

I continue to be seduced by French music and would love to conduct Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites and Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande. But the St. Matthew Passion is my desert island piece and I wouldn’t mind expiring on the podium after the final chorus.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

That’s a tough question. I can’t separate my being a musician from being a person. To use talents well in the service of the composer is one good thing but to live a life that makes my small sphere of existence a better place is perhaps better yet.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians and conductors?

To be yourself. We all are unique but we lose our uniqueness if we try to be someone else. All of us have idols. Mine were George Szell and Carlo Maria Giulini – two very different maestros. But as long as I fashioned myself after them I lost what was uniquely me. To be at home and grateful for who we are individually allows us to contribute to life. How wonderful it is to hear fresh individual interpretations of Beethoven. How boring if we were cookie cutters.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

That’s the toughest question. I’m not too sure perfect happiness is attainable or even desirable. A life full of love is probably the answer but to love is to the have the freedom not to love. Can happiness exist without sorrow? Here I have to confess being a Christian. Tomes have been written trying to answer this question but, as they say, “no gain without pain.” The cross leads to resurrection.


Erato release on November 24 a complete version of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, conducted by John Nelson and featuring a magnificent cast, including Joyce DiDonato, Michael Spyres and Marie-Nicole Lemieux. The recording was made during two concert performances given in Strasbourg in April 2017.

John Nelson, an acknowledged master of Berlioz’s music, made his New York City début with an uncut concert performance of Les Troyens at Carnegie Hall in 1973 and during the last 40 years has conducted the opera more than any other conductor.

In John Nelson’s words: “I have had the enormous privilege of recording what I consider to be the greatest French opera, with a predominately French cast, which has never been done before in all the recordings to date…”


One comment

  1. Frances, That was a wonderful interview with John Nelson. John and I met when I was his choral conducting student at The Aspen Music School in 1972. He also coached me for my entrance audition at Juilliard. John is a special person and your questions were pointed directly at his values. Thank you. Jon

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