BOSTON — The music director and main conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra is stepping down later this year.
World-acclaimed James Levine will leave his post at the BSO in September. That announcement came Wednesday afternoon, just a day after the BSO said Levine would withdraw from the rest of the orchestra’s current season because of health problems.
In recent years, Levine has torn his rotator cuff, he’s had surgery to remove a kidney with a cancerous cyst, and he’s had back surgeries that have forced him to miss dozens of performances. WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke about Levine’s upcoming departure with the managing director of the BSO, Mark Volpe.
Sacha Pfeiffer: Conductor Levine’s health problems have been very public, of course, and certainly very worrisome for many years, and I think for some people there felt like an increasing inevitability to this decision. But what was the final straw for you, and how difficult was this decision to make?
Mark Volpe: Jimmy and I began discussing an evolving role, and a role that would require a little less time and less energy, and we started those discussion, actually, in November, and continued through December. And then I saw him again when he was here in January. He basically felt, once he hit the wall again, that we should just announce that he’s stepping down, that he and I will sort out his role, and that’s yet to be fully fleshed out.
How much would you say was your decision and how much was his decision? I’m wondering how much he had to be persuaded to step down.
I think it was a joint decision. I think he came to the realization that, institutionally, another major absence was going to be untenable — untenable for the institution, untenable for the musicians. So I don’t think it was a question of power or Jim versus me. I think it was just basically an ongoing natural step. And this is not the way we wanted to have it happen, but it happened, and so we’re here.
Because this is a health-related issue, it makes it even more difficult and more delicate. But, of course, you also have to make a business decision. You have to decide: how does this affect the orchestra financially? How does it affect listeners who are disappointed? How does it affect the musicians? How much have those been factors?
Certainly our credibility with our audience is first and foremost. In terms of the orchestra, I just told the orchestra on stage what was going on, and they understand. They’ve been incredibly patient and incredibly understanding and incredibly supportive. But I think both Jim and I felt that we needed to change the relationship and take that pressure off.
What does it mean for the BSO to lose James Levine as its music director? Because this is a man who is a huge artistic talent and he’s been a draw for listeners, but in a few months he’ll be gone.
I think he’s one of the great conductors of our time and I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge his incredible contribution. Obviously you’re talking to a biased source, but the orchestra is in great shape artistically and he certainly deserves a great deal of credit, along with the players on stage. That being said, we’re in great shape, we’re in this great city for music in Boston, we have this great hall that we have — Tanglewood — and we’re financially, relative to many other orchestras, quite stable. Out of the 25 weeks this year, Jimmy was scheduled to do, I think, eight of them. So you still have two-thirds of your season led by other conductors. I think his legacy will be leaving an orchestra in fantastic artistic shape, and we have an exciting future in front of us.
The BSO has said that it’s working out a new role for James Levine, an “ongoing” role. At this point, what does that role look like?
Well, I think it will depend on his health and what he’s able to do. When he coaches singers, when he coaches conductors, he is one of the great, great teachers I’ve ever seen. At a certain point, you get into a legacy phase of your career where you want to help shape the next generation, so I could see him doing something there. He’s also done some huge projects — a lot of them involving singers — and that’s one of his great strengths, so I could see him doing, health permitting, some of that. He’s also one of the great New Music people, and not that we want to overdose on that, but certainly he’s got a relationship with Elliott Carter and John Harbison and other wonderful composers that we have relationships with, too, and I could see him having some role there. But until we know what’s possible, this is pure speculation.
The BSO now needs to find a new music director. Is this a process that has quietly been underway for a while, or are you really starting from scratch?
Well, you never start from scratch because you always have relationships. I mean, as I said, Jimmy does eight weeks and there are a lot of other conductors that pass through Boston, and we have relationships with many of the leading conductors of the world. That being said, there is a process that involves musicians, involves board members, certainly involves artistic staff. We convene, we start outlining a job description beyond just being a great conductor but also what our expectations might be, and then we talk and we start a process of discussions and dialogs. I don’t want to say we’re starting a search from scratch. I mean, we’re officially starting a search. At the same time, we’re always talking to conductors — and not surreptitiously, because they’re coming to Boston to conduct the orchestra as a guest conductor.
Would you say you already have a narrowed-down pool of names, and are there any names you care share as a possible successor?
No. I mean, first of all, it would be presumptuous of me since the search committee hasn’t even started talking names but ultimately right now it’s wide open.