A speculative and ineluctable question pervaded the packed foyers of Symphony Hall as a full house gathered excitedly anticipating Andris Nelsons’ Farewell Concert with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – who will take his place? The post is certainly attractive. The CBSO has a hearty esprit de corps, top flight musicians, a world class venue with superb acoustics, quality choruses and a healthy touring and recording schedule. Moreover, the successor will be walking in the giant footsteps of Sir Simon Rattle, Sakari Oramo and Andris Nelsons himself. A conscious effort needed to be made to put such thoughts to the back of one’s mind and focus on the purpose of the evening: a celebration of Nelson’s tenure and leadership.

The programme for this purpose was well chosen, both for its inclusiveness of the whole CBSO, and for bringing together a popular orchestral and choral masterpiece, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony no. 3, with a belter of a contemporary work for orchestra and mixed chorus, Ērik Ešenwald’s Lakes Awake at Dawn.

Ešenwald’s composition was commissioned by both the CBSO and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Nelson’s new home. It was fitting that the great Latvian conductor should have used the opportunity to promote the music of one of Latvia's best contemporary composers in this UK première. The CBSO Chorus clearly relished the work, projecting their magnificent sound throughout the hall with enthusiasm and diction that made the most of the counterpoints and rhythms. Although a number of the lines from the text were repeated, it was never repetitive thanks to the imaginative and colourful orchestration. At various points I could hear the sound of gulls on the lake coming from the violins, the waters of the lake rippling in sync with Nelsons’ elongated fingers, and the sun finally breaching the horizon to a percussive technique that looked from afar like a string bow being drawn across a xylophone block. Yet this was not ‘experimental’ music, but a mature and innovative composition in its portrayal of both imagery and narrative. I have heard some of Ešenwald’s work before on recording and I have been impressed. Its impact in concert is manifold, and I shall be seeking opportunities to hear his work again.

There followed a 15 minute tribute to Nelsons by various members of the orchestra, which again returned thoughts to its future. What is it that Nelsons has with the CBSO that they are finding it so difficult to replace? Perhaps the answer could be found in the performance of Mahler’s Symphony no. 3.

Nelsons raised his large frame, extended his arms like an albatross and, with a flick of the baton in his right hand, the bank of horns struck up the feisty fanfare introducing the first movement. The notion of nature’s majesty breaking forth from winter into spring and echoed by a Bacchic procession was well realised with Nelsons making the most of the composer’s nuances with some wonderful tonal colours. The bass trombonist interpreted his role particularly well with some deft phrasing and a robust tone. It felt as if the orchestra was playing within its capacity. It became clear that this was a deliberate ploy by Nelsons, allowing him to have somewhere to go at the end of the movement as he amplified the intensity to deliver a tremendous dynamic contrast that set all that preceded it into context.

Highlights from the other movements were aplenty. The changes of mood in the third movement were brilliantly executed, with the offstage flugelhorn exquisitely lyrical. Mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster’s performance was perfectly measured and supported by some mellifluous French horn playing. The CBSO Youth and Children’s Choruses were enchanting in the fifth movement, maintaining good balance with the adult chorus and bringing joyous light relief after the profundity of the fourth movement. In the final movement Nelsons, who had conducted with passion and energy throughout and sometimes jumping on the spot, seemed to get renewed strength and there was a palpable response from the musicians as the finale built to its emphatic conclusion.

As Nelsons cut the final thunderous chord his arms remained aloft, motionless and statuesque. Two thousand two hundred lungs simultaneously suspended their breath. Not until the sound had completely faded away after a prolonged pause did he move. Only then did the audience exhale, rising spontaneously as one in a standing ovation that went well past the point of hand hurting.

So, what is it that Nelsons has with the CBSO that they find so difficult to replace? Personal chemistry. Despite the risks, the CBSO is right to hold out until they find such chemistry again before appointing Nelsons' successor.