Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What's the BSO to Do Now?

I started thinking about the Boston Symphony Orchestra's situation today, on the long drive back from Los Angeles. The orchestra is in a tough spot right now: music director James Levine has officially resigned from that post, effective September 1, 2011. His resignation took place after the 2011-12 season had been planned and announced. The BSO would ideally have had a search committee in place months or a year ago, given Levine's health problems over the last couple of years, but their announcement said that they were forming such a committee "immediately." Well, we have no way to know whether their executives and board were putting out quiet feelers about who might be available, of course.

Let's stipulate a few things:
  • Programs in the upcoming season that are being led by guests conductors are not in trouble.
  • Programs that Levine is scheduled to conduct need covers to be in place if they aren't already, given the variability of his health. The BSO's associate or assistant conductors can cover some, but subscribers expecting Levine will want conductors of stature for most of those programs.
  • There are limits to how much program-shuffling can be done to accommodate changes of conductor. The soloists have all been hired, and there are limits to their flexibility. "Hi, Manny - never mind that Emperor you were going to play; could you do Magnus Lindberg's Second instead?" will get you only so far. (That is not a real example, though the works and the pianist are all genuine.)
  • It's highly unlikely that the BSO can get a new music director in place by September 1, given the short time and the long-term commitments of most reasonable candidates to succeed Levine. An interim/acting conductor with a one-year appointment, maybe.
Let's take a look at who might just be able to accept such a one-year appointment. Not Charles Dutoit, who  already has a short-term contract with Philadelphia before Yannick Nezhet-Seguin takes over. Not Michael Tilson Thomas, who is about to enter the most exciting SFS season in years. (Would he want to succeed Levine? Hmm.) Not Alan Gilbert, entering his third season at the NYPO. Not Donald Runnicles, who is fully booked, with one opera company and one orchestra, plus extensive guesting. Probably not Esa-Pekka Salonen, with an orchestra in London and the desire to compose more. Christoph von Dohnanyi? Daniel Barenboim? Raphael Fruhbeck de Burgos, who has had a relationship with the BSO for a good long time?

I have one candidate who is something of an outlier, but what an interesting year or two it could be with him at the helm. He has musical interests in common with Levine, he has previous experience running an American orchestra, and he's one of the world's greatest all-around musicians.

Yes, that's right. I mean Pierre Boulez. It's true that he is 85, but I saw him conducting last night and I'm seriously wondering if he'll be around as long as his good friend Elliott Carter. He looks a lot less frail than Levine does these days and, as you might expect, totally nailed Sur Incises. Draft Boulez, I say!

Update: Definitely read Evan Tucker's comprehensive review of candidates to succeed Levine and his views on the problems with a short-term appointment.


Anonymous said...

A guy who would be an awesome fit, but who sadly doesn't have quite enough of an international reputation to satisfy that audience, is Walter Weller. Greatest conductor alive, there for the taking.

Your idea makes almost perfect sense, and would probably be the best choice of the reasonable ones theoretically out there.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Please tell me more about Walter Weller! Where is he, what are his strengths, what recordings should I hear?

Evan Tucker said...

IMHO, a principal conductor figure like they had at the NSO, CSO, PO and PSO is almost always a disastrous solution. It just signals 'I give up.' It's like having an absentee music director, only with an excuse to be still more absentee.

Better to do what the New York Philharmonic did and just get an old veteran -- even if it's somebody like Lorin Maazel...better than nothing -- to be the music director for a few years until they get somebody who can (hopefully) be a more long-term solution. Haitink is obviously a doubtful solution, but they love Fruhbeck de Burgos in Boston. I'm sure they could use him for five years while they find a younger candidate. Or Neeme Jarvi, or David Zinman, or Semyon Bychkov, or Charles Dutoit (next year), or Eliahu Inbal, or yeah, maybe Walter Weller.

I actually did a big post about this question right after Levine announced his resignation about who should succeed him.


In any event, just my two cents. Sorry for the length :).

Best Wishes,


Lisa Hirsch said...

That's really good! I've updated the posting with a clickable link - don't know why Blogger comments are too dumb to make URLs clickable....

Immanuel Gilen said...

I'm very skeptical about Mr Weller and a bit surprised by the suggestion.

Not only do I find him extremely boring musically (ok, ok, de gustibus...), but he's also leaving the National Orchestra of Belgium in terrible shape. They often sound ragged, with significant recurrent issues in all sections (I would argue Jaap Van Zweden's, soon to be Edo De Waart's Royal Flemish Philharmonic is a far better Belgian orchestra), have a smaller subscription base and worse attendance than ever, etc.

Besides, ask any Belgian who Walter Weller is. They won't have a clue. Ask any classical music-loving Belgian who Walter Weller is and the odds are they still won't know the answer (He did not learn, to my knowledge, a word of Dutch, the majority language of this country, during his tenure here, and I don't know about his French; in two years of following the classical music scene here, I have encountered an interview with him once, in which he spoke English). That's how absent he is as music director here, so I simply couldn't imagine him in any non-guest role with an American orchestra.

And if all of the above doesn't convince you, his programming is quite unadventurous (and keep in mind, Lisa, that my tastes are significantly more conservative than yours anyways).

Lisa Hirsch said...

Whoa, that is all dismaying.

CrackLaden? Any responses?

Evan Tucker said...

A million thank yous. I'm honored.