Monday, March 29, 2010

Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra

Jeremy Eichler had a thoughful piece in the Globe last week about James Levine's health and absences and their effect on the BSO. Food for thought, for sure, about the impact of a music director who isn't able to fully lead the orchestra because of his health.

I have no beefs with the article, which is well worth reading. But the thrust of some of the comments shocked me. Okay, okay, I know: I should never be shocked by what I find in comments to a newspaper article. Still.

First, a number of commenters referred to Levine's age as if he were old. Well, he is 66 years old - but that is late middle age and hardly old for a conductor. Take a look around: Pierre Boulez, 85; Herbert Blomstedt, 83; Claudio Abbado, 78; Riccardo Muti 69; Michael Tilson Thomas, 65; Christoff Eschenbach, 70; Christoph von Dohnanyi, 80; Charles Mackerras, 84; Lorin Maazel, 80.

At 66, Levine is at the low end of this particular group, and it's true that about half of these conductors aren't currently music directors of an orchestra, let alone music directors of an orchestra and a major opera company. Donald Runnicles, age 55, and Frankly, er, Franz Welser-Most, 49, both have dual appointments, though FW-M's Vienna State Opera appointment doesn't commence until this fall. Other currently-active U.S. orchestral and operatic music directors are younger than Levine: Alan Gilbert, 43; Gustavo Dudamel, 29; Nicola Luisotti, 49; James Conlon, 60.

Moral of this particular story: Levine's age isn't the issue here. It's his health problems and absences.

Second...I was extremely surprised by how many people missed Seiji Ozawa. Ozawa was music director of the BSO for more than 30 years; by the end of his tenure, the orchestra's morale was extremely poor and it was clear he'd overstayed his welcome by quite a bit. Anthony Tommasini wrote about these issues in a 1993 Times article, and there was plenty about these problems in the press when Ozawa finally retired. (Note Tommasini's passing mention of the warhorse listener vs. the adventurous listener. The more things change...) Chacun a son gout, but preferring Ozawa to Levine?


Patrick J. Vaz said...

I suspect those preferring Ozawa are preferring familiarity or their own younger days -- in other words, it does come down to the adventurous listener vs the warhorse listener. There was a lot of grumbling, more or less openly, about Ozawa when I lived in Boston, and I left years before he did.

Joe Barron said...

It seems there will be a lot of grumbling no matter who is music director. There's nothing orchestra patrons love more than a good grumble.

Henry Holland said...

I'll just repeat what I wrote over there:

The assistant conductor here in Los Angeles is Lionel Bringuier, he's 24 and I've heard him conduct two really terrific concerts. There's others, like Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who's been highly rated in London with the LPO and others who aren't French or French/Canadian. There's a crop of good, young conductors around in the 2nd tier orchestras, waiting to move up to the bigger orchestras.

With a young conductor, there might be a period where things don't go right all the time, but as someone who saw and heard Esa-Pekka Salonen go from a one-shot guest conductor who couldn't conduct the 19th century rep to save his life to one of the best conductors in the world with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, if it works out, the rewards are immense.

I'd add, whoever gets the Boston job, now or soon, won't have to do the big orchestra rebuilding job that E-PS did, the LAP was in very poor shape when he took over full time.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thanks, Henry. I've no idea what the BSO should do in this situation. Levine's contract has a couple more years to run, and if his health improves, they might keep him.

y2k said...

Lisa, yes you're absolutely right: age isn't the issue; rather it is Levine's health. He is in worse shape than many octogenarian you listed. Considering he's almost the same age as MTT... MTT exudes youthfulness, JL is the exact opposite.

Having said that, the several BSO concerts I attended this season with JL as conductor, those truly stood out from the rest. He is a genius and I really hope with his latest surgery, he can recover and return to lead the BSO.

FWIW, the comments on the Globe's Exhibitionist blog entry when the withdrawal news first broke out, were far nastier than in the Eichler article.

Lisa Hirsch said...

He's now withdrawn from what I expect must be the balance of his Met performances for the year - some Toscas and Lulus.

I hope he can recover; back issues are really tough. I'm sorry to hear how nasty the blog comments were.