BSO and Levine, redux

April 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

An interesting article in the Boston Globe discusses the plight of the Boston Symphony and its ailing music director, James Levine. According to the Globe, the BSO drafted a contract for Levine (who also directs the Metropolitan Opera in New York), but the maestro never signed.

With Levine canceling the remainder of his appearances for the season (after already missing a number of concerts for health reasons), the BSO finds that it could simply walk away. This fact leaves the BSO facing an interesting decision.

On one hand, James Levine has used his tenure to improve and bolster the orchestra. At the podium, he leads them in very sophisticated performances. His recent reading of Mahler’s Symphony no. 4 proved particularly memorable (one review called it the BSO’s best night in 56 years). Although Levine’s programming is not particularly adventurous, he brings in some new music (Harbison, Carter, Ligeti, Berg). He is well-liked by both the musicians and the subscribers.

On the other hand, Boston risks being eclipsed by orchestras like New York and L.A. who have made daring decisions in choosing their next conductors. A similarly daring move could give the band a permanent, full-time music director (one whose primary job is at Symphony Hall!), building on the work begun by Levine but adding the panache of a hot young talent. In the past, Boston has favored personalities like Levine and Seiji Ozawa, perhaps better known for celebrity than artistry.

It would show good faith to stick with Levine, but how long can the orchestra wait for him to heal? At what point does he become a liability? Boston may have a unique opportunity to (re)join the upper echelon of American orchestras and demonstrate the kind of leadership that we have recently seen in Los Angeles in particular.

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