The elusive maestro: why the process of finding a new conductor makes music lovers weep.

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April 12 2011 11:20 AM

The Elusive Maestro

Why the process of finding a new conductor makes music lovers weep.

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The conductor's artistic skills come first, the mantra goes, then everything else. But everything else looms hugely. In the BSO's case, health and age will be issues, surely, more than ever. Levine was not the first conductor to falter at the helm. In the late '60s, the orchestra got burned badly in hiring the aged and ailing William Steinberg. For four years he was indisposed much of the time, replaced by a brilliant but very green assistant conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas, age 24. The orchestra was furious, but there was nothing to be done until Seiji Ozawa took over in what might be called a rebound relationship. (The official BSO history on the website does not mention Tilson Thomas at all.)

With the BSO now, hot tickets the press has speculated on include, of all people, Michael Tilson Thomas (doing wonders in San Francisco, recently returned for a stint at Tanglewood after many years away, so perhaps forgiven by the orchestra); Robert Spano (started his rise as a BSO assistant, has led Brooklyn and Atlanta, teaches conducting at Tanglewood); Riccardo Chailly (superstar who has a contract with the Leipzig Gewandhaus till 2015 and has never conducted the BSO); and Mariss Jansons (late 60s, a heart condition, currently with the Concertgebouw in Holland).

Then there are the wild cards. Not all great or potentially great conductors are international superstars, and those are the ones you'd love to uncover. One name put forth is the Russian Vasily Petrenko, who now conducts the Liverpool Phil and is 34. Wouldn't you know, he just signed a contract with Oslo that begins in 2013. Oslo to Boston is some commute. Of course, there's Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel, aka "the Dude," who took over L.A. in 2009. He's the closest thing out there to a young Lenny Bernsteinian rock star. But Dudamel is 30 years old and only in the majors for about five years, and he ain't gonna happen with Boston. The orchestra would erect barricades.

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Naturally, the above are already music directors of important orchestras, with obligations stretching years ahead. That was the situation with Levine and the Met. He insisted on maintaining both jobs, which did his health and the BSO no good at all. With any major conductor who can be tempted away from a booked-up gig, it will take years to extract him from the old position and have him fully committed to Boston. Like Levine, some of them may want to sustain dual, if not dueling, podiums. That is not what the orchestra needs, but they might have to put up with it. It's safe to say that this time the BSO will hope for younger and healthier candidates who show promise of settling in Boston. All that coming after artistic matters, in theory, of course.

And that's what it's like with orchestras and conductors. To summarize, for those who care about the Boston Symphony and the state of classical music in the United States: Just shoot us. Levine had his last rehearsals with the BSO on the Mahler Ninth, which he noted is "a work of farewell." At its end, that symphony, like Levine's career, dies and dies and dies. He collapsed before the performances.

Somehow, someday, the moment will come when the new guy (almost certainly a guy) will step onto the podium and a couple of thousand people sitting in the darkness will hope to be thrilled, and many of them will remember Levine and the Mahler Eighth and the German Requiem and other golden nights, a brief golden age bookended between hmmmm and pffffft, and that audience and thousands of others will feel hope again. Until then we've got a row of pretty faces week after week, and maybe some splendid three-night stands.

Jan Swafford is a composer and writer. His books include Johannes Brahms: A Biography and Charles Ives: A Life With Music.

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