Critic’s notebook

An artistic revitalization ends prematurely

By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / March 3, 2011

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The Levine era transformed the Boston Symphony Orchestra — and was clipped short before its time.

During James Levine’s tenure the BSO’s morale was lifted, its playing brought to a new level, and its luster restored in the eyes of the classical music world. His departure now is a poignant one because this musical relationship still had tremendous potential to continue growing and deepening.

Had health problems not intervened, there is little doubt the BSO would have sought to extend Levine’s contract at the end of next season. But the health issues did return, with cancellations piling up beyond the point that was sustainable for anyone.

Levine took up his post to great fanfare in 2004. By the end of Seiji Ozawa’s 29-year tenure, the orchestra’s national reputation had slipped, as had the morale of the players. Levine arrived with a reputation as a “builder’’ of orchestras — widely credited with turning the Met Orchestra into the world-class ensemble that it is. And over his seven-year tenure in Boston, Levine delivered on the promise of his appointment, bringing change to almost every level of the BSO, including its sound, its personnel, and its programming.

He introduced new seating for the strings, retuned balances, tweaked the sonic fingerprint of the orchestra, and brought a special emphasis on transparency of detail. Nineteen players were hired during his seasons as music director, reinforcing the stamp he was placing on the orchestra.

The sea change was instantly notable in the programming, especially in the conductor’s early seasons, which were driven by a bold and exploratory artistic vision. High on his agenda seemed to be a reckoning with the musical legacy of the 20th century. The repertoire tilted toward the modern. Classical staples remained, of course, but new links were proposed between older masters like Beethoven and modern pioneers like Arnold Schoenberg. In the Beethoven/Schoenberg Project, it turned out the two had plenty to say to each other.

Some tradition-minded subscribers balked at the same time as previously skeptical listeners returned to both Symphony Hall and Carnegie Hall to witness a BSO reinvigorated by its new leader, who, for his part, described himself as “a kid in a candy shop.’’ He used his clout in the opera world to attract top-tier singers to appear as vocal soloists, and he made opera in concert a dependable feature of nearly every season.

He also used his new post to approach admired composers for commissions, particularly the older generation of unreconstructed high-modernists, such as Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, and Charles Wuorinen. He presented bracing works by these men without soft-pedaling or apology, and he seemed to make headway at selling thorny music to once-skeptical concertgoers, many of whom eventually cheered Carter’s 100th birthday. Others never warmed to Levine’s tastes in contemporary fare.

Whether or not it was because of the resistance he encountered, the conductor ultimately toned down his championing of challenging early and mid-20th century masterworks — and as for the music of today, the current season has just one world premiere, by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, taking place tonight. The boldness of Levine’s early vision seemed in retreat at times, but one remained hopeful it would return in future seasons. Meanwhile, Levine redoubled his efforts at orchestral building, announcing projects devoted exclusively to Mozart symphonies and an ill-fated complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies, most of which it turned out he could not conduct.

Recurring health setbacks drew sympathy for his plight but also real frustration from players, concertgoers, and the board. It took a toll on the orchestra to see, time and again, its capstone artistic projects outsourced to last-minute substitute conductors. The withdrawals also fed into concerns that Levine was spreading himself too thin by holding down the BSO directorship and that of the Metropolitan Opera. In his spoken comments yesterday, Levine addressed that very question with candor.

“Scheduling the two things year after year was a real mountain to climb each season,’’ he said. “I don’t think we ever ideally solved that. What I wound up feeling a lot of the time was that I wasn’t really doing full justice to either one. But in the half a dozen seasons I did it, I kept trying to adjust it and develop it. And I think we made serious artistic progress in our work. But in the structure, I had hurdles I couldn’t really overcome.’’

Despite those hurdles, Levine even this season led excellent performances of works by Mahler, Wagner, Schumann, and John Harbison. The orchestra simply sounded different when he was on its podium, thanks to the tonal warmth he drew from the players and his gift for seeking out the deep expressive core of whatever repertoire was at hand.

What happens next for Levine and the BSO? The conductor said his priority is to reclaim his health right now so that, when he makes future commitments, he knows he can stick by them. It’s not hard to imagine frequent return visits as a guest conductor, affording him the chance to work on substantive projects with the orchestra. One hopes he will also be able to carry on with the teaching work he has made a priority at the Tanglewood Music Center.

In the meantime, the BSO will take up its search for a new music director, which in the orchestral world can take years. It is highly unlikely the BSO will have a candidate to take over the post for the start of next season. It is possible, however, that the ensemble would eventually make an interim appointment, in the way that, for instance, the Philadelphia Orchestra named Charles Dutoit as chief conductor while its music director search was underway.

The details of the BSO’s next chapter won’t emerge for many months. But now is the moment to recognize the singular accomplishments this orchestra and its leader have achieved over the past seven years. The city owes James Levine its thanks.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at