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BSO: seeking Levine, or successor?

James Levine in action (Michael Lutch/BSO)

James Levine isn’t someone who acts quickly. I remember interviewing him nearly a decade ago for an article, and holding off on writing the article (at my editor’s request) to wait for the announcement that he would be taking over the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The writing was on the wall that he was about to leave the Munich Philharmonic, but that writing was embargoed. He did, of course, end up going to Boston; but the announcement was made so many months later that the article never ran.

Nor does Levine talk openly: he’s a master of communicating while withholding information. The main subject of curiosity, even ten years ago, is his health (I remember him answering, “I’m fine, thank you!” to my somewhat awkwardly phrased question on the topic). Health problems have certainly compromised his work in the years since. He’s suffered a fall, had surgeries for cancer and back problems. In my opinion, though, the nadir came around 2004, right before he took over the BSO, when he was conducting slumped in his chair, barely moving, and nobody could explain what was the matter. I heard him give one of the worst performances of my experience with the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, which should have been a treat.

That period marked some kind of nadir; he’s certainly rebounded since then to give readings with a lot more energy and verve. And he’s done quite a bit at the BSO; the orchestra, by many accounts, is sounding much better after five years of Levine than it did in the last, weak years of Seiji Ozawa. To my mind, Levine’s surgeries seem less dire than whatever it was that caused 2004’s awful performances; but they’ve also meant he’s had to cancel large swathes of performances, both at the Met and in Boston. At the Met, he’s a fixture; but in Boston, where guest conductors are now leading the orchestra at Tanglewood this summer, there’s a feeling that they haven’t quite gotten the best of what he has to offer. Yesterday, an editorial in the Boston Globe called for him to consider resigning if he can’t recover his strength soon.

Levine takes a while to make up his mind; the question is whether the BSO is going to make up his mind for him. Inevitably, there's speculation about a successor, bringing back names that have been bandied about in the last few Big 5 orchestral searches: Vasily Petrenko (the obligatory young European), Michael Tilson Thomas (the obligatory American, who was once passed over at Tanglewood). Norman Lebrecht, on his blog Slipped Disc, offers another hypothesis in the form of an obligatory big-name European, Riccardo Chailly, currently of the Gewandhaus, formerly of the Concertgebouw, who has never held a music director position with an American orchestra.

What are your thoughts on Levine's BSO tenure? And how do you think Chailly would do as a replacement? Or who would you rather see in the job?

By Anne Midgette  |  July 19, 2010; 12:00 PM ET
Categories:  national , news  
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I think this is the most sensible commentary on Levine's health that I have seen.

I was surprised that the editorial mentioned that Levine has conducted from a chair. So what? The actual performances are the most visible part of his job, but much more time goes into rehearsals and the music director's share of administration and planning (and learning scores and and and). The BSO itself will have the best idea of how well he able to fulfill those invisible responsibilities. If he's able to do all of that and lead good performances, who gives a damn whether he is standing, sitting, or doing a headstand while he conducts?

Posted by: LisaHirsch1 | July 19, 2010 12:55 PM | Report abuse

We've been to at least a half-dozen BSO performances each year since Levine's tenure began (as well as the last years of Ozawa and the interim years under Haitinck.) Given my 'druthers I hope Levine completely recovers because we have very much liked what we've heard whether JL or a guest is on the podium. The brass in particular has improved. I don't often get my 'druthers and if health continues to impinge I hope that Levine will resign one of his major posts.

Posted by: jemery1 | July 19, 2010 3:26 PM | Report abuse

I'm a little unclear as to why we in DC should be greatly concerned about the music director in Boston? Are their that many of us making regular trips north to hear them? Perhaps it is a matter of his outsized (no pun intended) influence in the world of classical music.
Anne, your thoughts, please.

Posted by: kashe | July 20, 2010 9:06 AM | Report abuse

@kashe: Count me in for some trips to Boston if Riccardo Chailly becomes music director there! Also, WPAS has the BSO coming to the Kennedy Center next March, if a move happens before that time:

Posted by: Charles_D | July 20, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

kashe: You raise an interesting question. First, you assume that the readers of this blog all are in DC. I try to strike a balance between local and national, even international news, thinking that news about classical music is of some interest to at least some readers of a classical music blog, and knowing that a lot of people who read this blog are far away from Washington. But the blog has also, obviously, become a way to maintain a higher degree of local performance coverage than would be possible in the paper alone.

Critics are always thinking about this balance, and how local or national their coverage needs to be. I feel pretty strongly that it's a critic's job to cover the most interesting things in the field, not only in the field in his or her own city. My recent piece on American opera, while it had a Washington component, certainly wasn't about Washington. You could make an argument that it's my job only to cover Washington events, but to me that would cut off readers from some of what's going on in the field. However, this is open to debate, and I'd be happy, in return, to hear your thoughts.

Posted by: Anne Midgette | July 20, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

Please, NOT Riccardo Chailly. This clown has destroyed the Concertgebouw Orchestra - which was lucky to have Jansons restore its old sound. Note that the clown did not return to conduct the Concertgebouw after his "resignation"; that's more than five years ago!

And now he's destroying the Gewandhaus Orchestra! - which also lost much of its old sound. Incredibly, he doesn't even realizes what he's doing; he declared in an interview that there's no need to change the sound. I mean, is this guy deaf?

As for successor, I hope they have the common sense to appoint Vasily Petrenko.

I did hear the Boston Symphony fairly recent, at Carnegie Hall under Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos subbing for Levine in Mendelssohn's "Eliah." It was a magnificent performance, thanks to the conductor and the female soloists, especially Stephanie Blythe. The orchestra seemed to me to be in good shape, a sour oboe notwithstanding. Apparently, it was not the principal, but one would expect better from the Boston Symphony.

But again, the BSO sounded like any other great orchestra; it did not have a sound that would have the listener say: "it can only be the BSO." This of course, was not always the case: remember the sweet strings at the beginiing of Ozawa's tenure? (listen to his recording of "The Damnation of Faust" to hear what I am talking about.) Indeed, my one regret about the "Eliah" concert is that Frühbeck did not have the Philadelphia Orchestra instead, which still has preserved *something* of its string sound.

Well, at least I know that if Chailly is appointed to the BSO, there's no sound to destroy.

As for Levine, his best work remains building the great Met Orchestra.

Anne, please continue to cover national and international news. Most of us are music lovers and music know no boundaries.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | July 20, 2010 5:10 PM | Report abuse

I think it is a great thing that in your blog you do not limit yourself to cover the local Washington music scene.
There are many interesting things taking place in the music world to be limited to one specific city.
I personally follow a fair amount of blogs related to music, however I know that at some point I am going to miss something.
Besides, I enjoy reading your reviews and always welcome your opinion even if sometimes I do not agree with it.

Posted by: Zurga | July 23, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

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