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BSO Goes Conductor-Less — Well, Kind Of...

This article is more than 11 years old.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra kicks off its 2011 season Friday night without a conductor. Well, kind of.

German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter will lead BSO musicians through an all-Mozart program while performing at the same time.

The 47-year-old musician is known internationally as a virtuoso violinist, and has been since the age of 13. She’s also famous for wearing stunningly sexy gowns on stage.

But for rehearsal this week at Symphony Hall, Mutter chose black jeans and a V-neck sweater. She stood on stage encircled by about two dozen BSO musicians sitting in chairs. They focused on playing, but Mutter was multitasking — bouncing between bowing her Stradivarius and guiding the group with her right arm.

“Does the orchestra need a conductor for Mozart concerti?” she asked during a break, then answered, quite emphatically, “No, they need a leader for the Mozart concerti, but they don’t need physically a conductor beating every single bar. That’s almost an insult for such a great orchestra.”

Anne-Sophie Mutter (Wikimedia file photo)
Anne-Sophie Mutter (Wikimedia file photo)

Mutter has been leading other musicians through Mozart’s delicate works for about a decade. And even though she doesn’t see herself as a conductor, Mutter is being billed as one on the BSO’s opening night invitation.

“It didn’t happen by accident,” Managing Director Mark Volpe admitted. “There was some thinking behind it.”

Volpe said that thinking was that the programming choice would be symbolic.

“Would we do this every year? No, no, I think that this sort of fits with where we are.”

Where they are is “conductor-less,” after maestro James Levine resigned as music director in the spring. Volpe thought it was important to acknowledge this moment in time. But this was also a logistical decision.

“Jim was scheduled to conduct this concert as late as March or April,” Volpe explained. “A lot of the conductors who we might’ve even considered opening are fully engaged on one of four continents. And so whoever we would’ve had to replace Jim would’ve been just, you know, first and foremost, available.”

Rather than settle for that, the BSO instead honored their opening night contract with Mutter, who was already scheduled to share the stage with Levine.

Lloyd Schwartz, classical music editor for The Boston Phoenix, appreciates the BSO adapting to the crisis.

“It is being honest about what the situation is,” he said, “and yet it’s also being kind of a cop-out.”

For Schwartz, this symbolic programming choice calls negative attention to the fact that the BSO is now leaderless and will be for quite some time.

"Clearly it is a pivotal season," he said. "On the other hand it’s a season that, almost by necessity, is a season of treading water."

"Clearly it is a pivotal season. On the other hand it’s a season that, almost by necessity, is a season of treading water."

Lloyd Schwartz, Boston Phoenix classical music editor

Looking ahead, Schwartz says he sees a season of concerts that lack the stamp, ambition and inspiration of a permanent music director. And he says he wanted more from this weekend’s “play-conduct” program.

“I think it is a symbolic gesture. It’s some way of attracting the audience with a celebrity. I guess I would prefer something that really would’ve showed off the orchestra.”

But showing off isn’t an issue for BSO violinist and concertmaster Malcolm Lowe. Nor is performing this weekend without a formal conductor. As for the state of limbo the BSO musicians find themselves in, he explained it this way:

“For us, although it’s really sad the way things turned out with James Levine, we don’t look at it like that. It’s something that we enjoy in fact because we have to listen to each other even more, we become more dependent on one another. You know that’s part of our music-making experience.”

That said, Lowe says he and the rest of the BSO musicians look forward to finding their new captain — eventually. For now, though, at least some of them can look forward to experiencing all five Mozart violin concerti this weekend — something the BSO has never done before at Symphony Hall.

This program aired on September 30, 2011.

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



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