Maestro Levine's Health Keeps BSO On Its Toes

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This week the Boston Symphony Orchestra announced its programming for the coming season. But Maestro James Levine’s debilitating back issues are putting the BSO in a bind. The conductor has been forced to cancel appearances with the orchestra this summer at Tanglewood.

Mark Volpe, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's managing director, has been running something of a gauntlet this season, working again and again to replace Levine. At this point, Volpe has a method for filling the many holes in the conducting schedule.

"I’m not a computer guy," Volpe said, "I do it the old fashioned way, I mean everyone else uses computers, but I get a big, you know, grid, I put it in pencil so I can always erase it, but who’s available for what."

Maestro James Levine, in 2007 (AP)
Maestro James Levine, in 2007 (AP)

Week by week, concert by concert — here in Boston, but also at Tanglewood this summer. Volpe and his colleagues have been reaching out to artist agencies that place top-notch conductors in orchestras around the world, as well as to maestros who already have a firm relationship with the BSO.

"We’re talking about a pool of people who are in demand on five continents," Volpe said.

The scrambling has been going on for a while. Years, actually. A series of medical issues have dogged Maestro Levine, starting in 2006. Last season he bowed out of a slew of appearances, including a long-planned cycle of Beethoven symphonies and two major commissions. It's clear Levine's absence is taking a toll.

"I think the impact is probably most acutely felt in the orchestra," Volpe said. "I don’t want to say, 'jarring,' but it in terms of their own rhythm of how they prepare and all that, is not exactly ideal."

And it's not ideal for audiences either, according to Lloyd Schwartz, Classical Music Editor at the Boston Phoenix.

"The level of performances by the guest conductors was not as high as the level of performances by Maestro Levine," Schwartz said plainly. "So it’s very frustrating."

Now Schwartz is worried about the fall because Maestro Levine puts a lot of thought into programming the repertoire.

"The schedule for next season includes some really extraordinary things that I wouldn’t want someone else to do," he said.

Why not?

"Mr. Levine really transformed the orchestra," Schwartz said. "He is one of the handful — I’m not even sure there are five truly great living conductors. So we really owe him a lot."

And Schwartz says he hopes Levine will come back when he's ready because he's worth the wait. He even suggests that the BSO hire one single temporary conductor — for consistency's sake — to fill in until Mr. Levine is completely healed. Volpe says while that would be nice, it's not necessarily realistic. But what about the long term?

"That’s an interesting question, a legitimate question," he said. "It depends on what you’re talking about time. If you’re talking six months, it’s one thing, if you’re talking a year and a half, that’s something very, very different." Volpe added, "I have to be realistic and I have to protect the institution."

There have been questions about the maestro's future with the BSO — some regarding whether or not an updated contract with the orchestra was actually signed. Volpe says that's not an issue. And he says tickets sales are steady and audiences haven't been making a mass exodus. Right now Volpe's most pressing concern is Levine's health.

"At this point he's going under the knife, as they say, in two days," Volpe said. "Let him go in with a clear mind and thereafter I think we have to sit and talk about what is possible."

The state of maestro Levine's health should be more clear by the end of May, after he's had time to recuperate from his surgery.

The BSO is also concerned about the health of another world-famous conductor. Seiji Ozawa, BSO Music Director Laureate, announced yesterday that he is withdrawing from scheduled appearances at Tanglewood this July. Ozawa was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in January, and needs more time to recover from treatment.

This program aired on April 14, 2010.

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Andrea Shea Correspondent, Arts & Culture
Andrea Shea is a correspondent for WBUR's arts & culture reporter.



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