Levine learns from his ordeal

By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / September 20, 2008
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NEW YORK - The test results came in on the morning that James Levine was reporting at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's summer home. There was a growth on his kidney, the doctor said, and most likely that meant cancer. The kidney would need to be removed.

The maestro decided to stay through the opening weekend, though, and conduct performances of Berlioz's epic "Les Troyens." He didn't tell the BSO he would be leaving until Sunday night, after the final concert.

"I would never be able to concentrate on anything," Levine said yesterday. "Everybody would be frightened for my well being."

Levine recounted this scene Friday afternoon, during his first round of interviews since leaving Tanglewood abruptly in July and having his kidney removed. He has been given a clean bill of health, and he said he felt strong as he swigged a bottle of Evian during a break from rehearsals at the Metropolitan Opera, where he serves as music director. He opens the Met's season Monday, and the BSO's on Wednesday.

Levine said that while the kidney removal required less time off than his four-month break in 2006 after rotator cuff surgery, the experience was far deeper.

"You always feel you appreciate life, but when you get this sort of jolt it makes it more significant and more rich and more amazing and in a lot of ways, everything feels even more wonderful than it did before," he said.

Levine said he felt a surge of emotion when he returned recently to the Met for his first rehearsal. He expects a similar reaction when he arrives at Symphony Hall next week.

The upcoming BSO season is Levine's fifth as music director. It opens with an all-Russia program that includes works by Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and Glinka. When asked to offer highlights of the upcoming season, Levine said he couldn't pick out one concert series or another. Instead, in characteristic fashion, he talked through each of the programs he will conduct, explaining just why they were special.

For example, he will lead premieres of works by Leon Kirchner and Elliott Carter, a cycle of early Mozart symphonies "which you never get to hear live anymore" and an October appearance with Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini, whom Levine has never worked with.

"There is one criterion for the audience, which is more important than any other: Do they have an exciting, organic program whenever they go?" he said. "And I think the answer is, all these programs are a music lover's dream unless there just happens to be something that isn't to your taste or something you've heard too much lately."

In rehearsal at the Met Friday, Levine looked energized. He's been working with a trainer - no weight lifting but Pilates, walking, and riding a recumbent bicycle - and feels strong. In the pit, wearing his trademark golf shirt, Levine kept time with his right hand, and called for more with his left, the half-clenched fingers raised high.

Mark Volpe, the BSO's managing director, visited Levine's New York apartment recently for a three-hour meeting. They discussed next season's programming at Tanglewood, rehearsal schedules, and plans for an eight-concert European tour in 2010.

"He was bouncing around, with lots of ideas and energy," said Volpe. "The time he had the rotator cuff surgery, he came back and took the stage and started rotating his arm wildly. I don't know what you do for a kidney. Hopefully nothing."

Geoff Edgers can be reached at

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