James Levine, Heard but Not Seen

An onstage fall last week will keep Boston Symphony's James Levine off the podium today at a Kennedy Center concert.
An onstage fall last week will keep Boston Symphony's James Levine off the podium today at a Kennedy Center concert. (By Michael Lutch -- Boston Symphony Orchestra Via Associated Press)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 11, 2006

The bad news is that James Levine, in the second year of a brilliant honeymoon as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, won't appear with the group when it plays the Kennedy Center this afternoon. He fell while leaving the stage on March 1 and injured his shoulder. Doctors have advised him not to wave his arms around for a while.

The good news is that his absence will probably matter less than the absence of most music directors. Levine has never been a showboat conductor. He spends much of his musical life in the opera pit, at New York's Metropolitan Opera (where he is also music director), and opera conductors are all but invisible to the audience once the lights go down.

But more than that, he is not by temperament the sort of musician who emotes on the podium. He is the rare conductor who works sitting on a stool. And he does all of the real work of conducting -- the nuts and bolts of putting the various lines together, plus the fine-tuning, the balancing and shaping of interpretation -- in rehearsal. By the time he appears in front of an orchestra, he is mostly sending out small reminders to his musicians.

Even without his presence, Levine's impact can be heard in the program the symphony is bringing. The Boston Symphony has moved to the forefront of a handful of American orchestras, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony, that are attempting to buck the downward trend of the symphony world by turning back to what orchestras do best. They have opted for seriousness, exploration and perfectionism.

Anyone who has followed recent guest appearances of major orchestras at the Kennedy Center will be shocked by how radically different this feels. The Boston Symphony is making music for grown-ups, for serious music lovers, for audiences tired of hearing the same old same old, season after season. Levine is steering his orchestra against the prevailing and dispiriting trend toward mediocrity at most American symphonies. He is challenging audiences, hiring only the best soloists, and turning a night at the symphony into an intellectually engaging evening once again.

At the Kennedy Center, for example, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, one of the finest mezzo-sopranos working today, will sing a new cycle of songs by her husband, Peter Lieberson. The trenchant old man of modernism, Elliott Carter, will be represented by a 2004 piece, "Three Illusions for Orchestra"; and then there's music of Beethoven and Richard Strauss. David Robertson, a fast-rising young American conductor, will stand in for Levine on the podium.

The program is representative of what Levine is doing on a regular basis in Boston. In February, the orchestra gave two separate all-Schoenberg programs, including a traversal of his gargantuan song cycle the "Gurrelieder," with a stellar cast (the much-in-demand Finnish soprano Karita Mattila and Hunt Lieberson were the headliners). In recent weeks they've done music of Tan Dun, Jonathan Dawe and large-scale symphonies by Mahler and Bruckner. Next week brings music of Ligeti, a giant of 20th-century music who is sadly neglected.

Mark Volpe, managing director of the Boston Symphony, says that when the orchestra set out to replace its longtime former conductor Seiji Ozawa, "our list was one." They wanted Levine, and they got him. And now, with a hectic schedule of commuting, Levine may be the most powerful single conductor in the music business since Herbert von Karajan was running the Berlin Philharmonic and Vienna Staatsoper and the Salzburg Festival. With Levine, they also got a conductor with a far-reaching view of what he wanted to do.

"During the period that we were talking back and forth, he said to me, 'You know, when Toscanini did a concert, when Szell did a concert, it was an event,' " said Volpe, referring to two past titans of the orchestral world. "He felt we'd lost that."

Two months ago in Boston, Levine was working at a whirlwind pace. On a weekday afternoon he was at the piano, rehearsing a Beethoven chamber work in advance of a weekend program of Beethoven and Schoenberg -- part of an innovative and ongoing exploration of the two composers, side by side. He was also putting together a performance of Beethoven's massive and furiously complex "Missa Solemnis," a work so formidable in its challenges that it is rarely done, even though it is among the composer's finest and most profound achievements. The cast scheduled to sing it was jaw-dropping, including tenor Ben Heppner and bass Rene Pape, both of them superstars.

There was a buzz in the air at Symphony Hall, a brick neoclassical pile built in 1900 that ranks among the best acoustical spaces in the world. The hall was full -- and more impressive, there was a substantial number of young people. Dress is a little better on a typical symphony night in Boston than in most cities; there's a sense of occasion about hearing a concert.

And the orchestra was in fine form. Under Ozawa, who led the BSO for 29 years, critics often complained of a lack of refinement and depth. At his best, especially in the repertoire of large, romantic pieces that suited him, Ozawa could create explosively interesting performances. Levine is never quite so personal in his musicmaking; there's no idiosyncrasy. But there is balance, clarity and depth, and a seriousness of intent.

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