Critic's Notebook

Can less mean more for Levine at the BSO?

MICHELE MCDONALD FOR THE GLOBE/file James Levine’s health issues may force him to scale back his work with the BSO.
James Levine’s health issues may force him to scale back his work with the BSO. (Michele Mcdonald for The Globe/File)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / February 28, 2011

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Recent news that James Levine may be seeking to reduce his role at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in recognition of his ongoing health problems, will likely prompt a range of responses across the spectrum of orchestral players, audience members, and those who don’t necessarily attend BSO concerts but have still looked at Levine’s absences as touching on larger matters of civic pride.

This weekend no one at the BSO had comments responding to what Levine’s brother Tom stated Friday were the conductor’s intentions. But Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met, did speak briefly about Levine’s ongoing role at the opera house, Levine’s other home. His performances are being planned years into the future, said Gelb in a phone interview. No change in Levine’s Met title is now being contemplated, Gelb added, but he also pointed out that, over the last few seasons, Levine has conducted significantly less at the house than he once did. Next year his projects include Wagner’s “Ring’’ Cycle and a new production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.’’

“At the Met, and I’m sure in Boston too,’’ said Gelb, “he continues to be able to overcome whatever difficulties he has had — and give remarkable performances. It’s all of our hope that that can continue. I’m sure he would be the first to know if and when it’s no longer possible.’’

The broader situation is a truly poignant one. Levine’s musical and interpretive powers are at a peak right now, and when he has the physical capacity to unleash them, he can make the BSO sound like no one else can. This fall he made an extraordinary return to Boston after a long absence, conducting Mahler, Schumann, Harbison, and other repertoire with what seemed like months of pent-up musical energy. Just the week before last, he led students in fully staged performances of Smetana’s “Bartered Bride’’ at the Juilliard School, the kind of task Levine does not take lightly.

And yet, the health setbacks continue, now with the current withdrawals from four performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. And who knows what this Thursday will bring. These absences have proved, in the words of Levine’s brother Tom, “beyond frustrating’’ for the public, the orchestra, and Levine himself. At this point all the frustration risks undermining the good will the conductor had rightfully earned from the Boston public for revitalizing and transforming the orchestra during his tenure. That too is extremely sad to observe.

Given all of this, and that the health issues are persisting, scaling back naturally makes sense if it will allow the conductor to stay in better health, and allow the BSO to break out of a current cycle that no one regards as tenable over the long term.

It’s hard to guess what his new role will end up looking like in practical terms. If a healthy Levine could have an annual presence here, conducting repertoire he is particularly passionate about, it’s easy to picture a meaningful relationship with the orchestra being sustained for years, regardless of his title. Levine has also devoted huge amounts of energy to his work with the young musicians of the Tanglewood Music Center — and earned superb results there. One can only hope this teaching relationship will be sustained as well.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at