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Maestro Levine Bows Out, For Surgery

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Conductor James Levine, right, before the start of the final dress rehearsal Giacomo Puccini's Tosca on Sept. 17 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
Conductor James Levine, right, before the start of the final dress rehearsal Giacomo Puccini's Tosca on Sept. 17 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

James Levine, music director for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, will not be conducting at Symphony Hall Tuesday night. He will also miss a gala opening night concert at Carnegie Hall in New York Thursday because of a long-brewing, painful back condition.

The BSO announced Tuesday that the maestro needs unanticipated surgery for two herniated discs.

Mark Volpe, the orchestra's managing director, said Levine's back problems became dire after a concert Saturday night. "He called me into a room and said he was uncomfortable during the performance," Volpe said of Levine, "and he felt a little weak in his arms."

Volpe explained that Levine went to his doctor in New York on Monday, where it was determined the Maestro needed surgery sooner, rather than later. "If not tomorrow, I'm sure Thursday," Volpe said.

Volpe admitted to being caught off-guard by the emergency surgery, but he said BSO Assistant Conductor Shi-Yeon Sung is prepared to guide the orchestra through Tuesday night's performance of Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms" and Mozart's Requiem.

"That's part of the business," Volpe said. "You get the call and then you go to Plan B."

But he acknowledged that Maestro Levine is particularly disappointed to have to bow out of two long-planned concerts: Thursday night's season opener at Carnegie Hall in New York, and retiring Principal Harpist Ann Hobson Pilot's final moment on stage with the BSO back in Boston this weekend. She's been with the orchestra for 40 years.

"For him to miss those two special occasions, it obviously had to be very serious," Volpe said.

He also said while the BSO's two assistant conductors will fill in for the Levine's missed shows in Boston, a replacement for Maestro's Carnegie Hall performance has not yet been secured.

"Carnegie has been incredibly constructive and helpful," Volpe said, "so we're working through that and hopefully by tomorrow we'll know exactly what we're going to be doing."

While Volpe admits the orchestra is disappointed, the musicians are also hopeful about Levine's setback.

"Jim has been through a few medical issues since we've been working together for the past six years," Volpe explained, adding, "one reassuring dimension to Jim's personality is optimism. He tends to recover quickly."

Levine tore his rotator cuff after falling on stage at Symphony Hall in 2006. After that he couldn't conduct for about four months.

In 2008, he missed almost the entire season at Tanglewood after doctors removed a cancerous kidney.

This program aired on September 29, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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