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MusicThe Berkshire Review in Boston

The End of the Levine Years: James Levine to step down Sept. 1, withdraws from his remaining BSO concerts of the 2010-11 season

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Boston Symphony Orchestra in Symphony Hall. Photo Constantine Manos.
Boston Symphony Orchestra in Symphony Hall. Photo Constantine Manos.

The following news has just been released in two instalments by the Boston Symphony Orchestra:

BSO Managing Director Mark Volpe announced today that as of September 1, 2011, James Levine will step down from his current role as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a position he has held since 2004. Discussions between the BSO and Maestro Levine are underway to define an ongoing new role for Mr. Levine. Mr. Volpe has also announced that the BSO will immediately form a search committee to begin the process of appointing the next Boston Symphony Music Director.

“The BSO has been incredibly fortunate to have had one of the greatest conductors of our time at its helm since 2004,” said BSO Managing Director Mark Volpe. “That being said, given Maestro Levine’s health issues, this has been a challenging time for all of us in the Boston Symphony Orchestra family, especially our beloved orchestra and devoted audiences.”

“We wish Maestro Levine the absolute best as he steps down from his role as BSO Music Director to tend to the health issues that have forced him to be away from the music-making he so profoundly loves,” continues Mr. Volpe. “We look forward to continuing our conversation with Jim about defining a new role where he can focus solely on the music and defining artistically stimulating projects that would be meaningful to him and the orchestra, building upon his BSO legacy thus far. As we begin the search to appoint the next BSO Music Director, it is imperative that we take this time to express our deepest gratitude to Jim for the extraordinary performances that have inspired his loyal listeners in Boston and around the world.”

“Given the challenges regarding my health and the ensuing absences they have forced me to take from my work with the BSO, I believe it is best for everyone, but especially the orchestra and our wonderful audiences, for me to step down as music director,” said James Levine. “I make this decision knowing that I need to focus more of my attention on getting back to better health, so when I do return to the BSO podium I can continue the important work the orchestra and I have done together during the period of my music directorship. As the BSO and I define a new relationship that I hope will benefit all involved, I wish the orchestra the very best in the search for the next Boston Symphony Music Director. It has been an honor and a privilege to have served in that role these past seven years.”

This comes in the wake of Levine’s having to withdraw from the remainder of his scheduled 2010-11 Boston Symphony Orchestra appearances, March 3-19, due to the ill effects from a recent procedure addressing his ongoing back issues, further complicated by a viral infection. Though all concerts will take place as scheduled, Mr. Levine has had to withdraw from conducting appearances at Symphony Hall (March 3, 4, 5, and 8; and March 10, 11, 12), Carnegie Hall (March 15, 16, 17), the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (March 18), and the Washington Performing Arts Society at the Kennedy Center (March 19).

Symphony Hall Programs in Boston
BSO Assistant Conductor Marcelo Lehninger will conduct the BSO’s March 3, 4, 5, and 8 program—unchanged from what was originally scheduled—featuring German violinist Christian Tetzlaff in the world premiere performances of Harrison Birtwistle’s Violin Concerto. The program also includes Mozart’s Rondo in C for violin and orchestra and Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2, also featuring Mr. Tetzlaff.    Roberto Abbado will lead the Symphony Hall March 10-11-12 with pianist Peter Serkin in Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3, substituting for Maurizio Pollini, who has had to cancel his BSO appearances due to the flu.  This program will also include Haydn’s Symphony No. 93 and Beethoven’s Symphony No 5.

Carnegie Hall, New Jersey Performing Arts Center, and Kennedy Center
BSO Assistant Conductor Marcelo Lehninger will conduct the BSO’s March 15 Carnegie Hall program, featuring German violinist Christian Tetzlaff in the New York premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s Violin Concerto as well as in Mozart’s Rondo in C for violin and orchestra and Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2. Andris Nelsons will make his BSO conducting debut leading the March 17 Carnegie Hall performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. Roberto Abbado will lead the March 16 Carnegie Hall concert, which will feature Joshua Bell in Bruch’s Violin Concerto in G minor, substituting for Maurizio Pollini, who has had to cancel his BSO appearances due to the flu. This program will also include Haydn’s Symphony No. 93 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C.    The March 18 New Jersey Performing Arts Center and the March 19 Kennedy Center concerts will be led by Roberto Abbado and feature pianist Peter Serkin in Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3. This program will also include Haydn’s Symphony No. 93 and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C.

Once again, James Levine’s ongoing health problems necessitate his withdrawal from his scheduled concerts with the BSO, although he apparently will be following through on his commitments to the Metropolitan Opera, including performances of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre in a new production. For several years now, he has been able to fulfil only an ever-decreasing part of his obligations to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Tanglewood Festival and Music Center, and his audiences. Many music-lovers, I not the least of them, have admired his perfectionism, his gift for teaching and orchestra-building, his sincere devotion to music as written in the score, his support of living composers, his many very fine performances, and his few deeply inspired ones, which remain unforgettable. (Some of these, fortunately, are preserved on the BSO’s small, but outstanding series of recordings.) However, it has been all too long since he has been able to provide consistent musical direction from the podium, and the effect on musical life in Boston and the Berkshires has been getting worse and worse — not so much in any deterioration in the playing of the orchestra, which seems to me to be solidly at the peak he brought it to, as in a growing confusion in the orchestra’s mission and role in musical life in New England. One can hardly blame Levine for preferring his roles as a conductor, teacher, and patron of new music, but, as his forces declined, the BSO administration has weakened its focus with a plethora of trivial, even silly sideshows at Symphony Hall (fashion events, dinner packages and the like, in addition to some genuinely valuable initiatives in music education) and an invasion of pop music at Tanglewood. I have already discussed the worrisome situation at the Festival. The blue chip pop stars of a greying generation may fill the Lawn and the Shed and bring in much-needed cash, but this policy is backward-looking and may prove harmful in the end. It will be a sad day when Tanglewood has lost its unique quality, which appealed both to experienced classical listeners and to neophytes, and is barely distinguishable from SPAC. Clearly this growing dilution has been made more urgent by Levine’s continuing absences, since the Music Director himself is a draw to all audiences, and his presence an expectation of newcomers. James Taylor and the rest fill in the revenue lost by Levine’s cancellations — and more than that, most likely, encouraging a deleterious commercialistic habit. Only the quality of Levine’s BSO, which, unlike Ozawa’s BSO, can actually give fully-realized performances with the limited summer rehearsal schedule, has provided the necessary solid foundation for the outstanding guest artists, the offerings of the TMC, and the Festival of Contemporary Music. This year all those good things are clearly dwindling.

One can appreciate Levine’s devotion to music and admire his will to go on, but the situation has long ago come to a point where BSO audiences can be justly angered that he has been taking advantage of the administration’s seemingly endless patience to the detriment of the institution’s core values. The BSO is discussing some future ongoing position for Mr. Levine, while it organizes a search for a new music director. Is there in this a possibility for a continuation of the status quo? Perhaps, but let’s hope not. There should be a clean break, and we can only hope that the orchestra will hire a conductor who can act as a true music director, setting his stamp on all aspects of the orchestra’s activities.

Even though Mark Volpe and his staff must have seen this coming, it will be a major challenge to put together a worthy season at this late date, when some orchestras have already announced their 2011-12 seasons. In will also be extremely difficult to find another music director who can match Levine’s abilities as a conductor and an educator, not to mention the ability to create a vision for the orchestra through commissions of important new works and programs like the Schoenberg/Beethoven series. Riccardo Chailly, Alan Gilbert, and Esa-Pekka Salonen come to mind, but whether they could be attracted to Boston is another question. In the short term the best news, I believe, is that the superb Andris Nelsons will conduct the Carnegie Hall performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony on March 17.

In summary:

James Levine withdraws from his remaining scheduled
concerts of the BSO’s 2010-11 season, March 3-19, including
Symphony Hall, Carnegie Hall, New Jersey Performing Arts Center,
and Kennedy Center appearances, though all
concerts will take place as scheduled.

BSO Assistant Conductor Marcelo Lehninger to lead March 3-4-5-8
Symphony Hall And March 15 Carnegie Hall programs featuring premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s Violin Concerto with violinist Christian Tetzlaff.

Roberto Abbado to lead March 10-11-12 Symphony Hall program with
Peter Serkin performing Bartók Piano Concerto No. 3; Abbado also to lead
March 16 Carnegie Hall program joined by Joshua Bell performing
Bruch Violin Concerto in G Minor; Messrs. Serkin and Bell fill in
for the ailing Maurizio Pollini, who has the flu.

Andris Nelsons, in his BSO debut, to lead March 17 Carnegie Hall
performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.

Roberto Abbado to lead March 18 and 19 concerts at
New Jersey Performing Arts Center and Kennedy Center
with Peter Serkin as soloist in Bartók Piano Concerto No. 3.

Maestro Levine is forced to cancel appearances due to ill effects from a recent procedure addressing his ongoing back issues, further complicated by a viral infection.

About Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, Il Museo di Roma a Trastevere, etc. and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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