Mar. 11, 2011
BOSTON — The Boston Symphony Orchestra is facing a season of change. The departure of its world-renowned music director James Levine has left a formidable institution without a permanent music director. As it considers its next act, the orchestra finds itself considering both Levine’s legacy and its own goals for the future.
Levine announced last week that he’ll resign his post, effective in September. Hailed as the best conductor since Leonard Bernstein, Levine brought critical success and a reinvigorated reputation to the BSO. But the latter years of his tenure were dogged by back problems and related health complications.
Some observers sense an oncoming crisis for the institution, as it tries to stabilize after Levine’s chronic health issues resulted in only inconsistent appearances by the conductor – and falling ticket sales that some think were related to Levine’s absence.
Other critics view now as an exciting time for the BSO, an opportunity build on Levine’s success with the BSO while adjusting old paradigms and reach new audiences.
WGBH’s Callie Crossley sat down with Lloyd Schwartz, Pulitzer Prize winning writer and classical music editor of The Boston Phoenix; Yehudi Wyner, a composer and pianist who won a Pulitzer Prize for composition in 2006; and our arts and culture contributor Alicia Anstead, to discuss Levine, the state of the BSO and what might come next. Here are some highlights of their discussion.
On Levine’s Musical Gifts
Wyner: Levine came from the deepest sources of classical music. He’s a marvelous pianist, and an overall musician of extraordinary gifts. Certainly not second to Leonard Bernstein in terms of his ability to interpret music, and to absorb it. The amount of absorption, the amount that a man like this has really digested, and retains, is universal. It’s like a compendium of classical music canon.
On Levine’s Program
Wyner: Almost all the great music directors have sooner or later come to a commissioning program of adventurous new pieces… the problem that came up with Jimmy, as far as audience was concerned, (was) that he immediately jumped to something that had not easily prepared and organically prepared by the Boston Symphony in the previous years. That is, a certain kind of very radical, sometimes theoretical music that Jimmy is very partial to. And sometimes that may be very great.
Moreover, he balanced programs. There was lots of music that was not new.
Schwartz: For me, the absolute high point of Levine’s tenure here was the year he did joining Beethoven and Schoenberg on the same programs. So that on one hand, you knew that some of the music was going to appeal to a larger audience and some people were going to resent having to sit through something they thought they didn’t want to hear. And yet, those concerts were so illuminating, because you could hear Schoenberg taking off from where Beethoven left off.
That was a brilliant idea, and maybe some of the BSO regulars resented that, but on the other hand, there was a whole new audience of both younger people who were really curious about this juxatopistion, and there were also people from the university music departments who had stopped going to the BSO because they were so bored with the program, and suddenly, filling the seats because there was an actual programming idea that they were interested in.
The State of the Orchestra
Anstead: With all respect to the difficulties that the BSO administration is in right now, in filling in these gaps, and that the orchestra members themselves are facing in morale, and also what Levine himself is experiencing medically – that’s all very difficult. What’s exciting, is that the BSO is actually in such a great position, to embrace a whole new world.
They have a robust online presence, with music that’s recorded there… The BSO is well-positioned, it’s one of the strongest orchestras in the country, if not one with the biggest budget.
Schwartz:Crisis is not quite the right word because partly – or maybe even mostly – Levine, when he came here, really transformed the orchestra. I’ve lived in Boston since 1962. I’ve been going to the BSO since 1962, I don’t think it has ever been in this good shape since I’ve been there.
Wyner: (The BSO management) are first class in their field, and they haven’t been sitting on – well, whatever you sit on – not thinking about the future.
What’s Required of His Replacement
Wyner: We tend to think of a conductor from the outside-in, but how do the members of the orchestra – or even someone like the BSO’s librarian – think of the conductor? Also, how does a conductor relate to the press? How does his image project in raising funds? How does he look on the cover of a brochure? The factors are innumerable. It’s not just how they wave their arm and the knowledge of the music.
Anstead: Artistic excellence is the most fundamental quality a new conductor will have to have. The face of music in Boston could of course be a woman. What would happen if someone like an Alondra De La Perra or a Dudamel took root and made cultural connections with younger people?
Schwartz:I believe that the future of classical music lies with women. It used to be thought that young women didn’t have the right kind of DNA to play Beethoven or Bach. But women are the largest constituencies in our music schools and they are becoming the majority of players. How long are they going to stand for the hegemony of the male leader?
We hope that whoever becomes the music director has broad taste, and that includes centempory music, 20th century music, and even early 21st century music
Anstead: They’re also going to have to understand that the audience is no longer a sit-still audience – that they are digitally driven, that they are immigrants, and that the digital world is her to stay
Role of BSO in the City and Going Forward
Wyner: A symphony orchestra in a city, a major symphony orchestra, stands as a kind of icon and a beacon of civilization. It is a measure by which the quality of intellectual and emotional life is regarded and judged…For that reason, even though it’s attractive to only a fairly small minority of people…nevertheless, it’s that kind of a moniker, that kind of an identification, ‘Yeah, Boston really is a classy city.
Anstead: It’s not quite like the Red Sox and it’s not quite like the Celtics, and yet, in terms of our global pride out in the world, not just locally but out in the world, the BSO has just as much reach. This is a world-class orchestra. It’s in the top 20 orchestras of the world. And that gives it a unique place, not just in local pride but national pride. And that makes it an organization that exchanges cultural information, cultural knowledge, reaches across all sorts of borders, which music does, of course. And I would put it on a par not only with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts but with the Boston Public Library System, in creating an important place for our city. Not only here, but beyond our town lines.
Schwartz: BSO performances are not only live performances at Symphony Hall. There are recordings, including some recent Grammy-winning recordings, that certainly are accessible and available to people who certainly aren’t anywhere near Boston and probably never will be…The outreach is huge. And in fact one of the triggers for this recent crisis is that the Boston Symphony Orchestra does go on tour outside of Boston, and there were scheduled performances, which are taking place but without the maestro, at Carnegie Hall, at the Kennedy Center, and at several other places in the northeast corridor. And the orchestra has certainly been to Europe.
MARK VOLPE ON THE SEARCH PROCESS
MARK VOLPE ON LEVINE'S RESIGNATION
LISTEN: THE CALLIE CROSSLEY SHOW
WCRB Programs and Features
Sign-up for updates from 99.5 WCRB, WGBH promotions, and previews of what's coming up on WGBH TV.