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.

Us conductor James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Click image to expand.
James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra 

When the Boston Symphony announced in 2001 that James Levine would be taking over the orchestra in 2004, there was a mighty outpouring of "hmmmm" from the Boston musical public. Levine was good, no question, but he was mainly an opera conductor, churning it out at the Met night after night. And he planned on keeping his job in New York. On the other hand, at least Boston's long musical doldrum under Seiji Ozawa was nearing its end after three decades of music-making more forgettable than otherwise. The stories of Levine and Ozawa form a parable of orchestras and their maestros, a parable about to be rehearsed again.

When Levine finally mounted the podium in Symphony Hall for his debut as music director, Boston discovered that he was so bulbous and physically messed up that he sat hunched over with one cheek planted awkwardly on a stool, only occasionally looked up from the score, and barely moved his arms. Yet from his debut with the epic Mahler Eighth, Levine proceeded to give performances that were not just superb; they were sometimes staggering.

Levine performed more contemporary music than any Boston conductor since Serge Koussevitsky.He got away with it because he was so damn good. And he was old-fashioned good, unsullied by trends—such as the early-music virus that infects conductors with the delusion that faster is always better. His tempos, like every part of his conceptions, were a particular response to a particular score. His Beethoven and Sibelius were as coherent and distinctive as his Schoenberg and Harbison. He was unpretentious and boyishly enthusiastic, known to all as "Jimmy."

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Clearly the orchestra understood that with Levine they could show they were one of the greatest bands in the world, and they rose to the opportunity. Unforgettable evenings accumulated: a full-throated and magnificent German Requiem, a ferocious Varèse Amériques, a two-year series pairing Beethoven and Schoenberg. Levine's program note for the Beethoven Missa Solemnis began, "This is the greatest piece ever written! I mean it!" He made us believe it. Before long it dawned on us that the Boston Symphony was entering its most glorious period since the Koussevitzky era–and Levine might be a better conductor than Koussevitzky. You got used to emerging from Symphony Hall with your head buzzing, ecstatic.

Then pffffft.

On March 2, the BSO announced that Levine's season was over and, likewise, his seven-year tenure as music director, effective in September but in practice immediately. At age 67, after three years of falling apart from chronic back trouble and other physical problems, with management trying to nudge him toward the exit so the orchestra could get on with its life, one more back collapse finished it. Levine had been profligate with his health for a long time, partly due to his killing schedule between the Met and the BSO. Now his lifestyle caught up with him. The Boston Symphony, having spent the three years of his decline in limbo, now entered some circle of hell where rudderless orchestras drift in despair.

For years to come it's going to be guest conductors, with an occasional Levine appearance if he's up to it. Can guests give good performances? Sure. But guest conductors equal to the BSO are a rare and endangered species. Most of the young maestros have orchestras and crowded schedules of their own. In practice the best guests tend to be semi-retired, like the incomparable long-time visitor Bernard Haitink, or like Sir Colin Davis, Christophe von Dohnányi, and Lorin Maazel. All those men are in their 80s. More importantly, guest conductors can't shape an orchestra week by week, season by season, into an ensemble of some 70 people with a personality, a point of view, an almost clairvoyant communication among players and conductor that can approach the level of a string quartet's.

Meanwhile the conductor search is on. Call it prospecting for the perfect mate or Saturday-night date. He or she doesn't exist, but some people are much, much better than others. There's looks and talent and experience, but there's also chemistry, and those don't always happen together. For an orchestra, there's also the bottom line, which says that you want somebody holding the baton who's as magnetic as possible, to put the butts in the seats. When you make a mistake you have to live with it for years, if not decades. The pitfalls and pratfalls of the search process are illustrated by the case of Seiji Ozawa.

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