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BSO To Search For Its Match With New Conductor

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BOSTON — Last month the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Music Director James Levine announced they’ll be changing their relationship. The maestro is stepping down from his position because painful herniated discs kept forcing him to cancel appearances, leaving the BSO in a bind time after time. This month the official search for Levine’s replacement begins.

It’s been a rough few weeks for BSO Managing Director Mark Volpe. He’s had to fill conductor slots for performances at Symphony Hall and for the BSO’s recent East Coast tour that was supposed to be led by Levine. Volpe’s also been fielding media calls from all over the world asking about the orchestra’s fate after losing its talented maestro. Then, there are the suggestions:

”I have gotten well over 1,000 emails,” he said. “I got five names from Slovakian conductors. I didn’t realize there were five conductors qualified to conduct the Boston Symphony in Slovakia — in someone’s opinion.”

Opinions for the orchestra’s next maestro are coming from Sydney, London — Boston, too. And lots of people are dying to know who these conductors are.

”I know names but you’re not going to get them out of me!” he said with a laugh. “Good try.”

But Volpe will talk about the process. This month the BSO is forming a search committee: four musicians, four trustees, Volpe and artistic administrator Tony Fogg. Task No. 1? Create a new profile that reflects the qualities the BSO is looking for: artistic inspiration, leadership, musical intelligence. But also the ability to connect.

”With the audience, with the incredible academic community that we’re fortunate to have in Boston, with the press, with funders,” Volpe said, “and sort of kind of outline all that before we even begin to talk about conductors.”

The fact is a lot of potential conductors have already passed through Symphony Hall and Tanglewood as scheduled guests, but also as substitutes for Levine. And Volpe said a lot of new faces will be on next season’s program, essentially trying out for a long-term relationship.

“It’s like a marriage, it has to work both ways,” he said. “The conductors are going to be looking at us in a slightly different way. It’s no longer Jim Levine’s orchestra, it’s wide open.

“I mean, as sad as it is to see Jim go through all these physical challenges, you know in terms of the prospect of looking at the future of the orchestra, it’s going to be a real interesting period.”

“It is,” confirmed BSO violinist and concertmaster Malcolm Lowe. “You never know where someone might come from to all of a sudden overwhelm us and say, ‘This is it!’ ”

At the same time Lowe knows it’s not easy to please more than 100 musicians. He’s been with the BSO since 1984 and went through a maestro changeover when Seiji Ozawa stepped down in 2004. The trial period can be hard for some musicians, exciting for others. But Lowe said everyone is looking forward to a sense of stability.

”There is definitely a quality of a music director or conductor as in any leadership position of them being there for you, come hell or high water,” Lowe said. “You never know what to expect on stage and we all care very deeply about how we end up playing.”

It could take years to find the right match, and Lowe hopes BSO audiences will be patient. Levine’s many cancellations took a toll on ticket sales. Some hardcore classical fans have practically abandoned their treks to Symphony Hall. Romy Bessnow of Woburn is one of them. These days he prefers to stay home and play live recordings of the BSO (and countless other international orchestras) on his massive sound system in his custom-built listening room.

Romy Bessnow is pessimistic about the BSO's conductor search. He prefers to listen to past recordings on his massive sound system in his Woburn home. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Romy Bessnow is pessimistic about the BSO's conductor search. He prefers to listen to past recordings on his massive sound system in his Woburn home. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

I asked Bessnow if the promise of a new music director would entice him back to Symphony Hall.

“Like some kind of a magic bullet that will make me completely excited again?” he asked. Then, with a sigh he said, “I don’t know. I’m personally pessimistic. I don’t think anything is going to be good and I think for quite a number of years the BSO is going to be out of shape.”

But Bettina Norton thinks “any crisis can be turned into an opportunity.” She’s the editor of the Boston Musical Intelligencer, an online classical journal and blog. She’s had a lifelong love affair with the BSO and vividly remembers seeing her first concert at Symphony Hall as a kid in 1944. While Norton’s been a fan of many BSO music directors — including James Levine — she also looks forward to spicing things up with a new maestro.

“I’ve been married 55 years for heaven sakes,” she exclaimed with a laugh, “things change and you adjust. But with an orchestra I think the idea of sex appeal should be there, and I was thinking it’s like a ménage à trois: the orchestra, the conductor and the audience.” Then she repeated the phrase, for emphasis: “ménage à trois.”

When I shared Norton’s idea with Volpe, he said, “I’ve never heard that expression before… no, teasing. Absolutely. That’s why it’s such a difficult search.”

Difficult because Volpe said there are so many parties to satisfy. But he doesn’t see the current situation as a crisis. It’ll all work out, he hopes, because he believes the BSO is a pretty good catch for maestros. It’s active and financially stable, unlike many of the nation’s other orchestras. So, Volpe said, they’re keeping their options open.

“Hopefully our behavior will be measured and balanced and mature. I’m not sure that happens with everyone who becomes single again. [The] good news is in a 130-year institution there is some maturity and I don’t think we’re going to go into the rebound phase.”

Instead, Volpe wants the process to unfold organically. But he also acknowledges the pressure to find the right maestro, because when you’re talking about an orchestra the stature of the BSO, the stakes are high.

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  • Jstein

    The BSO needs to start with a new Managing Director. They have eschewed having a Composer in Residence, they release very few recordings despite the claim that all concerts are recorded, they have no Principal Guest Conductor (in the past it’s been Colin Davis, Haitink etc) and they could have prepared for Levine’s ultimate departure by establishing relationship with some other established conductors. They are an arrogant organization-one with no competition in Boston. Even their failure to keep their subscribers aware of plans for next season shows arrogance. The season must have been totally planned before Levine’s announcement. Assuming he was conducting 8 weeks or so would mean that most of the season is unchanged. What would it take for a letter to subscribers to let them know what is happening?

    • row e 1st balcony

      The fact that the BSO have not yet released the schedule for next season can not, without further evidence, be blamed on either “arrogance” or the situation with Levine since it has been their tradition for the many decades that I have been paying attention not to release the new schedules any earlier than the first or second week of April and occasionally even later than that. If this week comes and goes with no announcement then we can start wondering when we’ll hear from them, but until then it is quite simply business as usual. I will agree that I wish they would regularly make this announcement earlier, but that has nothing to do with the current situation regarding Levine.

  • http://twitter.com/CurtNickisch Curt Nickisch

    That Arthur Nikisch is one dapper fellow.

    • David in Wellesley, Mass.

      Curt, Sergei Rachmaninoff, who was as fine a pianist and conductor as he was a composer, rated Arthur Nikisch and Gustav Mahler the best conductors he worked with during his most active years of touring as a pianist, c. 1900-20. You’re one of the best reporters I’ve heard on the radio. I’ve always wondered if there was a connection.

  • row e 1st balcony

    It seems you could have found someone more representative of the BSO’s audience than Mr. Bessnow. Would you do a story on the future of the Red Sox and only interview someone who sits at home watching videotapes of old games because he feels the team isn’t as good and never will be as good as it was when Ted Williams was there? Mr. Bessnow said nothing that would make me believe that he is actually a fan of the BSO or really cares what happens to it. The fact is that even with all the turmoil caused by Levine’s health the Orchestra is still playing better than it did for too many years before Levine’s arrival in Boston. I think all of us who care about this orchestra have opinions regarding things that could be improved, but anyone who groans that it’s all just terrible and there’s no hope of improvement will clearly never be happy no matter who is conducting or what the repertoire is. Mr. Bessnow is entitled to his opinion, but no one should be led to believe that he represents any substantial part of the BSO’s audience.

    • Romy The Cat

      The “row x from a balcony”, do you think that somebody who “sits at home watching videotapes of old [Red Sox] games because he feels the team isn’t as good” would be considered a Yankee fan? I think you need to leave your baseball mentality where it belong and get some perspective. Some people do go to concerts to demonstrate Fenway solidarity but have own discriminating reasons. If you failed to recognize the quality of BSO performances when they were and were not prepaid by Mr. Levine (at least during the 2004-2008) then it is good for you but do not fantasize that you are the “substantial part of the BSO’s audiences”.

  • Preston

    Well done report Andrea.

    One has to wonder type of organization (professional, governmental, not-for-profit, military, religious, sports, news, etc.) runs without contingency leadership plans? So many people are depending on this. The concept of taking years to find another so-called maestro is a complete joke. Unfortunately for the musicians, their support teams and music fans this is a terrible mess and is not a joke. Would you want to work for this organization? Guess where the best upcoming musicians won’t be coming?

    Classical music has a real uphill battle of educating the public. As the BSO floats around lost at sea the public will just continue to drift away to other activities. Complete failure of strategy; BSO’s leadership really needs to rethink the mission. This is a also a good opportunity to rethink the leadership team.

    In closing, one would hope that the BSO and the City of Boston is attractive enough to get a full-time leader this time around who will be here to make the BSO somewhat more relevant…

  • Cecil

    I am disappointed in the writing style/grammar in this article. It is written with the language and finesse of an undergraduate student. It contains so many examples of “pop” grammar that I had to stop reading it. Please get some real writers in the journalism field. Please.

  • Cecil

    I am disappointed in the writing style/grammar in this article. It is written with the language and finesse of an undergraduate student. It contains so many examples of “pop” grammar that I had to stop reading it. Please get some real writers in the journalism field. Please.

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