Thursday, October 18, 2012

Corporate Governance and the Return of James Levine

Last week, the Met released information about James Levine's long-awaited return to the podium; at the same time, the Times posted an exclusive story that included remarks from Levine himself about everything that's been going on. Responses have been pleased but also muted and skeptical; read Anne Midgette and Alex Ross's blog postings, and also my own. In a review of the Met Orchestra's concert this week, Anthony Tommasini mentioned reality checks.

The long silence, followed by news of the extent of Levine's injuries and confirmation that he has benign Parkinson's reminds me all too much of the period when Steve Jobs looked ill, but nobody at Apple was saying anything. Eventually, it came out that Jobs had liver cancer and had had a liver transplant. As we know, Jobs eventually died of his illness.

Apple is a publicly traded company and has a legal responsibility under securities law to make known material information that could affect its earnings. If it were not enormously profitable, with new and updated products rolling out over the last few years, you can bet that stockholders would have been asking questions about the company's failure to inform regulators and the public of the specifics of Jobs's illness. In the long run, his death will surely affect Apple; can anyone imagine him letting the new Apple Maps product out the door in its current condition?

As a non-profit arts organization, the Met has no such legal responsibilities, and Levine is not mortally ill, but the situation with him raises issues similar to those at Apple:
  • Who takes Levine's responsibilities at the Met during his absence and recovery?
  • What happens if Levine can't come back full time?
  • What plans does the Met Board of Directors have for succession?
James Levine has been at the Met since 1971 and has been music director since 1976, a remarkable tenure by any measure. (I'm curious about conductors who've been with one institution for so long; please post numbers in the comments. Yes, there's Ozawa's 29 years at the BSO.) One can hardly exaggerate Levine's importance and influence - but (all current health issues aside) he's not going to live forever.

It's the Board's responsibility, first and foremost, to take care of the institution, but it looks as though their primary concern right now is taking care of James Levine. I understand their desire to have him as active as possible in an organization he has helped shape for so long. But their evident reluctance to contemplate life without Levine is a serious concern. It is not good for the Met to be so dependent on one individual.

Look at the schedule for his return: he is current attending to administrative and some musical duties, after being away for well over a year. He will conduct one concert in May, 2013, and appears scheduled for perhaps 20 performances in the 2013-14 season. This is appropriately cautious, considering the severity of his injuries and the uncertainties inherent in recovering from them. Still, for comparison, in the 1990-91 season, he appears to have conducted 57 performances, based on a search of the Met archive. When will he be able to take on a heavier workload? At the earliest, two seasons from now.

Even if he comes back as currently scheduled, he'll be 70 by next season. For how many more years does the board think a 70-year-old with a history of serious health problems can run an institution the size of the Met?  Levine is one fall (or car accident) away from another catastrophe. The Met's planning needs to include that as a possibility.

Alex Ross's blog posting, to which I linked above, noted that "...the Met seems lost without him." That points to a lack of leadership depth and poor planning on the Met's part. We know how well this works out by looking at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, now in its second season of guest conductors.

I believe that the Met is making a mistake by letting Levine's recovery and return drag out over such a long period of time. It is an enormous gamble. Except, perhaps, for Apple, no responsible for-profit corporation would let this kind of leadership vacuum develop.

For the sake of the Met, the board's best path might very well be naming Levine Music Director Emeritus, letting him conduct and work with singers as much as he's able, and naming a younger and healthier conductor to the post of Music Director. Who this might be remains to be seen. Fabio Luisi told the Times this week that he cannot cover for Levine next season, and it certainly doesn't sound as though he is in line to succeed Levine. I've seen only one rumor in the last year or so about a possible replacement ("former music director of a large US opera company," on Parterre Box some months ago). This week's article also says that the Met has "not yet addressed" who would cover for Levine in 2013-14.

Really? There is no guarantee that any performer will be on stage for any future commitment. Levine's recent history means the Met must have covers in place for those performances.

This year or last, during Levine's absence and recovery, would have made a good transition period. If he attempts to return and can't do it, it will be that much more difficult, unless the Met has a secret transition plan and secret music director candidate up its sleeve.


D. said...

Fiedler and Ormandy come to mind--both conducted their respective orchestras for a really long time.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Indeed. Fifty years for Fiedler at Boston Pops, forty-four for Ormandy at Philly.