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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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