In search of a new direction

Levine’s departure upends the BSO — and offers a chance to recast the future

James Levine took the Boston Symphony Orchestra to some dizzying heights, but his tenure had its share of difficulties. James Levine took the Boston Symphony Orchestra to some dizzying heights, but his tenure had its share of difficulties. (Michael J. Lutch/Boston Symphony Orchestra/File 2004)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / March 8, 2011

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And now, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s time of reckoning — long deferred — has arrived.

Last week, of course, brought a rolling tsunami of bad news, as James Levine pulled out of all of his remaining Symphony Hall dates this season, an East Coast tour, and ultimately his music directorship. He holds the post until Sept. 1, but, in an age when music director searches can drag on for years, that’s basically tomorrow.

One thing is clear: This is a mess of a situation. It’s also crucial that the BSO make smart decisions to reclaim its current and future direction after a troublingly long period of artistic drift.

At the most basic level, what the orchestra needs right now is someone who will at once re-anchor and reboot the institution, bringing an infusion of vision, vigor, commitment, and inspiration. In recent seasons, as would-be highlights were time and again passed on to last-minute substitute conductors, you could sense the orchestra’s mounting resentment, simmering below its veil of professionalism. The players are also getting less deft at hiding it. In Saturday night’s Bartok performance under Marcelo Lehninger, to cite one recent example, the orchestra’s playing was too often soggy and lethargic. Levine left this group in good shape technically, but the slow-motion collapse of his tenure, stretching over the last three years, has taken a major toll on the morale of the ensemble.

And this was not only a result of his physical absences. As I noted back in 2008, long before Levine’s back problems became so severe, his own artistic vision began to waver. You know you are in trouble when what is billed as a season’s most inspiring project is in fact a reprisal of the same Beethoven symphonies that are a staple on almost every other BSO season.

Levine took the orchestra to some dizzying heights, but the path to the sublime became increasingly narrow. When it came to contemporary music, as I have also noted, Levine’s tastes were ultimately very strong but restricted. Older high-modernists and a few other lucky composers reigned supreme. Levine also read his biases into the past. In a choice that seems emblematic, the conductor froze out the music of Shostakovich — a towering 20th-century composer who simply wrote outside of the traditions Levine deemed properly modern. Meanwhile, orchestra administrators seldom stepped up to round out the picture through active shaping of the guest conductor offerings.

So what’s next? The BSO’s official search committee is just now being formed so the field of potential candidates is as wide open as it will ever be. The success of Michael Tilson Thomas’s Mahler performances at Tanglewood last summer led many to wonder if he could ever be lured away from San Francisco, back to Boston where his career began. Industry rumors have also swirled around the possibility of BSO discussions with the elegant yet incisive Milanese conductor Riccardo Chailly. You can be sure the BSO will also be looking at a wide swath of younger conductors, possibly including Andris Nelsons, Vladimir Jurowski, Daniel Harding, Susanna Malkki, Robert Spano, and Kent Nagano.

One refrain often heard from onlookers during the final years of Levine’s tenure was that the BSO should not have to share its maestro with anyone, let alone an institution as demanding as the Metropolitan Opera. It galled many others that the conductor did not live in Boston.

It’s the unfortunate reality however that almost anyone worth considering will likely have commitments to other orchestras, possibly on other continents. The crucial aspect is that the BSO be the next conductor’s top priority.

Among the pack of young would-be contenders, there is considerable buzz at the moment around Nelsons, a Latvian conductor who, at 32, currently leads the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Dubbed by the Guardian “the magician of Birmingham,’’ he made a lavishly praised debut with the New York Philharmonic last month, and he is clearly a conductor rapidly on the rise. And thanks to a nice break from the scheduling gods, the BSO will soon be getting to know him.

That’s because Nelsons was already scheduled to be in New York next week conducting Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades’’ at the Met, so he was free to step in as Levine’s replacement when the orchestra performs Mahler’s Ninth Symphony on March 17 in Carnegie Hall. Many ears will be listening for signs of chemistry. But even if it’s love at first sight, Nelsons is committed in Birmingham until 2014.

With so many potential music directors tied up at the moment, we may be in store for an interim appointment. Let us pray the orchestra does not lunge for safety by naming a well-known but uninspired maestro like Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos or Lorin Maazel. The bigger fear, with an interim chief or no chief at all, is that future seasons would morph into a disconnected series of generally well-played but boring concerts, without larger continuity, a bigger shape, or a sense of building. After the unmoored quality of the last few seasons, the BSO simply cannot afford an ongoing cycle of disinvestment among audiences and players alike.

But things don’t have to turn out like this, especially if the orchestra makes sure that a serious crisis — as Rahm Emanuel famously put it — does not go to waste. Even without a music director, now is the time to finally bring more artistic voices into the mix as a way of oxygenating Symphony hall. Any interim chief, if there is one, must be a bold and galvanizing choice, but there must also be more done to reclaim the momentum.

The BSO should appoint a composer-in-residence, ideally one with catholic tastes, an ability to conduct, and an interest in programming. It should also appoint a resident artist — a leading soloist who returns several times over the course of a season to explore discreet corners of the repertoire. In the spirit of reenfranchisement, the orchestra would do well to provide opportunities to players beyond the principal chairs to participate in chamber music concerts — perhaps curated by one of the new artistic appointees. Additionally, the BSO should formalize a link to any one of the city’s dynamic music scholars, symbolically and literally reconnecting the orchestra to Boston’s thriving intellectual life.

The search committee has a long road ahead, no doubt. But the orchestra can keep its subscribers engaged and even begin to restore the good will that Levine’s health saga has depleted — by taking intelligent risks, by introducing a new polyphony of forceful artistic voices, and most of all, by giving the orchestra’s players a reason to feel invested once more in their own future.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at


Michael Tilson Thomas
Riccardo Chailly
Andris Nelsons
Vladimir Jurowski
Daniel Harding
Susanna Malkki
Robert Spano
Kent Nagano