James Levine Set to Take the Reins at Boston Symphony
Thursday, October 21, 2004
By Ronald Blum
NEW YORK ó James Levine won't be in two places at once this fall. It will just seem that way.
After more than three decades as the leading force at the Metropolitan Opera, the bushy-haired conductor becomes music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, starting Friday [22 October] with a gala performance of Mahler's Eighth, the "Symphony of a Thousand."
Levine also is music director at the Met, becoming perhaps the first person to hold two such high-profile American podiums simultaneously. Arturo Toscanini and Gustav Mahler were heads of both the Met and the New York Philharmonic, but not at the same time.
So while they are rivals on the baseball field, Boston and New York will share Levine, who will keep his New York apartment and stay in a hotel when he heads to the Hub.
Now 61, Levine says: "It's worth mentioning that 85 percent of Toscanini's concerts were done after he was 60."
A child prodigy when he grew up in Cincinnati, the grandson of a cantor and the son of bandleader Lawrence Levine and Broadway actress Helen Goldstein, Levine made his Met debut in 1971, became principal conductor two years later, music director in 1976 and artistic director in 1986. With his assumption of the Boston post, his Met title was reduced to music director, but he remains on the podium for most high-profile performances.
He was hired three years ago by the BSO to succeed Seiji Ozawa, whose 29-year reign ended in 2002. But because Levine's three-year contract as chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic didn't run out until mid-2004, the BSO had to wait. In an unusual move for an orchestra, it was willing to go two seasons without a music director in order to get Levine, seen as a conductor who could reinvigorate an orchestra that many reviewers wrote had gone stale under Ozawa.
"I think there was a consensus while there was incredible talent in this orchestra, we at some level had underperformed our potential. We wanted inspiring performances," said BSO managing director Mark Volpe (no relation to Met general manager Joe Volpe).
Levine transformed the Met orchestra from an inconsistent pit band to a highly respected ensemble whose performances rival the world's best symphonic outfits on some nights. He talks, suggests and cajoles during rehearsals ó he doesn't dictate.
There were rumblings in the relationship earlier this year when The New York Times reported complaints from unidentified orchestra members who said his concentration during performances wasn't what it was. Levine has been bothered by a tremor on his left side and sciatica in recent years, and now conducts from a chair rather than standing. Some of the players said they couldn't detect his cues as well, the paper reported.
Levine said he didn't understand the criticism and can't relate to it.
"I know these people and they know me," Levine said. "I can't imagine what anybody was doing with the anonymous statements and all that nonsense. I came to back to work this autumn with an orchestra utterly responsive and with me, like always."
In some ways, he's as familiar with the BSO as he is with the Met. He made his BSO debut on April 13, 1972.
He will conduct half of the orchestra's 24 subscription weeks and spend several weeks each year at Tanglewood, the BSO's summer home in Lenox, Massachusetts. Add in occasional tours and Levine's annual commitment of 23 or so weeks to the Met, and his calendar fills up.
"I think the schedule and the structure of it couldn't be better," Levine said. "It does something for me which at this point is a big help ó I don't have the necessity through the winter season to go back and forth so much through jet lag."
Mark Volpe thought the timing was a key factor in the BSO's ability to land Levine.
"The 40-year-olds and 50-year-olds never complain about jet lag, they just do it," he said. "I noticed with Ozawa, Bernard Haitink, Christoph von Dohn·nyi, when they hit 60, all of sudden, trying to cover two continents, then fly and try to have a rehearsal the next morning, it hits them harder."
In recent years, Levine has cut the total number of his performances at the Met in some seasons, preferring more "space" around his work. But he still has four-performance weeks, and Saturday doubleheaders crop up.
"I don't think you can do the same quantity at 60 that you did at 40," he said.
Levine could have signed on with almost any U.S. orchestra he wanted. He apprenticed with the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell, was music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Ravinia Festival from 1971 to '93 and guest-conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.
"I think Boston always had a balance of elements which reacted with me very comfortably," Levine said. "The public in Boston supports the orchestra with a great sustained enthusiasm. There are the sensational acoustics of the hall and the oldest situation of its kind in Tanglewood. These are all things that I have a strong relationship to."
He bubbles with joy when discussing music, be it in front of the musicians, in his cramped office just off the orchestra seats at the Met or in the cafe where he frequently goes after his New York performances. Surrounded by a tight staff that has been with him for years, he spends as much time as possible on the music-making, leaving them to handle most of the administrative details.
Levine's time is in such demand that he is legendary in the music business for being hard to pin down for marketing and public relations tasks. But as soon as he's available, he instantly is approachable and has a gift for describing music and conveying his knowledge. Singers adore the way he adapts orchestras to their vocal needs.
He, in turn, comes to Boston with an admiration for the players. His initial contract is for five years, and talking about the orchestra brings out a boyish fervor.
"They have a tremendous capacity for stylistic detail in a huge variety of music," he said. "They're not an orchestra which is specialized in a sense, which I like, because I want to keep a lot of different kinds of music alive."
The BSO seems intrigued by Levine's partnership with the Met orchestra, which has ripened after more than 2,000 performances rather than turning stale. "He somehow after 30 years has kept the Met orchestra engaged," is the way Volpe put it.
For Levine, his weeks at the Met seem to run like clockwork ó rehearsals with singers, orchestra rehearsals, dress rehearsals, performances. There is a sense of unknown for him in Boston. He calls it "a great adventure to develop and broaden my repertoire."
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