Arts: Why the Conductor Threw Away His Baton

John Nelson's crusade to keep alive sacred choral music.

Among major conductors, no one is quite like John Nelson. At age 55, his career is still on the rise, and today he enjoys national and international acclaim. "But," says Nelson, "I don't believe anyone in my business has a background quite like mine."

Though it was clear he was talented, Nelson was never trundled off to expensive piano lessons. No wonder: he was an MK—missionary kid—in Costa Rica, a country with a national symphony orchestra but no standing army.

John was exposed early to classical music. His family purchased an upright Steinway piano for $50 when he was six, and he began lessons. By the time he was 12, John had played for radio broadcasts.

Nelson's first serious piano training was at Wheaton College's Conservatory of Music. It was too late for a concert career and, born with small hands, he couldn't reach an octave until fully grown. A boyhood accident cut off the end of his right little finger, making an octave even more of a stretch. So he exchanged the keyboard for a baton and pursued choral and orchestral conducting at the Juilliard School of Music. Among his classmates was Leonard Slatkin, recently appointed music director of the National Symphony Orchestra.

Nelson's first major conducting break came in 1972. While conductor of the Pro Arte Chorale in New Jersey, he convinced them to sponsor an uncut performance at Carnegie Hall of Les Troyens, Berlioz's lengthy opera. The performance caught the attention of the New York music scene and led to engagements at the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera. Becoming music director of the Indianapolis Symphony (and also of the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis), he built it into a reputable orchestra in 11 years, defying its relatively small market ...

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