James Levine, Heard but Not Seen
Boston Symphony Resonates With Injured Maestro's Ideas

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.

"The dynamic range is great," said James Sommerville, the orchestra's principal horn player. "The soft things are softer, the loud things are louder, and it is a more articulate approach. It is a clearer sound, better-enunciated sound. It's probably more varied in terms of timbre and color. You will hear a lot more different kinds of sounds."

Fenwick Smith, a flute player and chairman of the orchestra's players' committee, hears changes too. And it's not just when Levine is at the helm. The infusion of energy, he says, can be heard even when the orchestra is led by other conductors.

"The change in the last couple of years is really enormous," he said.

All of this can take its toll. The musicians are chewing through more new music, bigger pieces, and at a higher level of intensity than in recent years. Morale is high, they say, but fatigue is a danger.

To sustain this level of musicmaking, the orchestra is pouring money into Levine's dream.

Ed Linde, chairman of the orchestra's board, acknowledged that Levine's programming is expensive, and not all of his decisions -- especially his interest in bracingly modern music -- have been popular.

"If you have 32 people on any board at any time, you will have certain dissenting views," Linde said. There has been some loss of traditional subscribers, but there's been an uptick in single-ticket sales. "I will say with some confidence that the great bulk of the trustees are happy, proud of and looking forward to a terrific relationship with maestro Levine."

Orchestra leaders often hire conductors based on their sense of how much money they will bring in. Are they glamorous? Will they do the cocktail parties and fundraisers? Will they promote the "brand" and throw out the first pitch for the local ball team? Levine, say BSO leaders, does some of that. But he's the opposite of a cash cow. Volpe says that to support Levine's vision, the BSO has had to go out and find more money to support it.

"We quantified the extra costs of artists, extra rehearsals, all that, at about a million and a half beyond what our baseline was," he says. In the tough economics of nonprofit orchestra management, that means assembling about $40 million of new endowment money. Volpe says the orchestra is about halfway to that goal.

Most of the American orchestral world is in the midst of a now decades-long malaise. Audiences get older and sparser, programs become more and more limited to a small and overplayed core of familiar classics, rehearsal time is limited, and the results show. Concerts become workmanlike. Soloists jet from city to city and rarely seem to have much engagement with the orchestras they play with. Few orchestras can afford to hire the superstar artists that might help them rise above the routine. Serious music lovers find fewer and fewer evenings that interest them. The National Symphony, which can play at the highest level when inspired, recently announced a season filled with chestnuts and B-level guest artists, and little that hasn't been heard here repeatedly over the past 10 years. That's become the norm throughout American musical life.

Fighting the slow demise of seriousness comes at a cost, and orchestra observers point out that the Boston Symphony has several natural advantages over other groups.

It has a well-developed franchise in its pops series, which is artistically distinct from their main series. The Christmas Pops program is a moneymaker. And its endowment, which stands at $318 million, is the largest of any symphony in the country. The orchestra has also built a loyal audience over the years, and the BSO brand is big in Boston.

But it didn't get big by accident. The Boston Symphony is an old, patrician institution that has always prided itself on a strong connection to new music, and the finest quality musicmaking. You can hear it in the tone of the people who keep it alive. "The Boston Symphony will continue to do what it has always done through its glorious history," says Linde, the board chair.

In today's orchestra world, that conservative commitment to excellence is radical.

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