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Last-minute maestro

How new BSO assistant conductor Sean Newhouse faced his first Mahler Ninth for an ailing James Levine, and survived to tell the tale

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By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / March 11, 2011

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At a little after 8 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 24, Sean Newhouse stepped to the podium of Symphony Hall.

Just two hours earlier, he had received word that James Levine, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s ailing music director, had withdrawn from that evening’s performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony — a piece whose technical and emotional demands give it a place in the repertoire all its own.

Newhouse, one of the BSO’s two assistant conductors, had never led a public performance of the piece, with any orchestra — he had rehearsed just the first three movements with the BSO earlier in the week, when he (and the rest of Boston) still expected Levine on the podium. Now, with almost no notice, Newhouse was being called on to walk in front of a nearly filled Symphony Hall that had been expecting the master, and try to live up to the expectations as best he could.

“It’s crazy to look back and say, ‘I conducted four performances of Mahler 9 last week with the Boston Symphony,’ ’’ he says during a conversation at a Jamaica Plain coffeehouse not far from his apartment. “Because if you’d asked me, well, at any point in the past, did I expect to be doing that at this point, obviously the answer was no. But it’s part of the life of a BSO assistant conductor to be ready for whatever happens.’’

A native of South Burlington, Vt., who joined the BSO just last September, Newhouse studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music and Tanglewood Music Center, among other places. He counts his three-year stint as music director of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra, in Los Angeles. as the beginning of his career. With a boyish appearance that slightly belies his age, the 30-year-old Newhouse has a quiet self-confidence that must serve him well as an assistant conductor, a post where stories of last-minute summonses are legion.

When that last week in February began, Newhouse wasn’t expecting to do anything more than study the Mahler score and attend rehearsals, as he always does for his assigned programs.

“As we went through the fall, I was becoming more and more optimistic about maestro Levine’s health and thinking that he was on the road to recovery, because he was doing great work,’’ he says. “Obviously his mobility when he was standing up was limited, but once he got on the podium he was doing great stuff.’’

The first indication that something might be up came on Monday afternoon, when he got a call from artistic administrator Tony Fogg telling him that Levine would likely miss the first Mahler rehearsal, scheduled for Tuesday morning, and that he would probably have to step in. “That call puts you in a frame of mind where [you think], hmmm, this might actually happen. So I’d better take another look and make sure I’m ready for what comes.’’

Ten minutes later, Levine called, and together they agreed that Newhouse would run through the first three movements and work on a few tricky spots. Mahler’s Ninth is a signature Levine piece, and he and Newhouse decided to leave the symphony’s fourth movement — a long and deeply personal adagio — for the music director to rehearse when he returned. Newhouse checked in before the rehearsal with concertmaster Malcolm Lowe, who gave his assent to the plan.

“It was tremendously exciting, that first rehearsal,’’ Newhouse says. “It showed me both how much I knew and how much I had to learn. And the orchestra was responsive and supportive. It was a great experience.’’

Still, he was relieved when Levine arrived to conduct the afternoon rehearsal. As Newhouse watched that day and the next, he was occasionally struck by how variable Levine’s health seemed — fine one moment, infirm the next.

“I started to wonder a little bit during [Wednesday night’s] open rehearsal,’’ he recalls. “There was a moment — I think it was right before the break — when he had the orchestra stand, because the audience had applauded. And he turned around and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the Boston Symphony,’ or something along those lines. And he seemed really tired at that point. And I wondered. But I didn’t know.’’

And Newhouse didn’t find out until the next day, around 6 p.m. He was in his study when Fogg called to tell him that they were making arrangements to get him to Symphony Hall as quickly as possible. This time he was on — for real.

“My first reaction was, ‘Wow, I have officially entered the big leagues,’ ’’ he laughs. He spent the last 45 minutes before the concert reviewing the score and making sure that “its tricky corners . . . were completely internalized and in my blood, so that I could be there for the orchestra when they needed me.’’

But he was nervous, right?

“There’s no question that there was some nervousness there,’’ is his almost clinical answer. “But I did feel a lot better about it knowing that I had at least conducted those first three movements in the rehearsal on Tuesday. Having done that once before gave me an ounce of confidence that I think was really helpful in that first performance.’’

Before the concert began, Mark Volpe, the orchestra’s managing director, took the unusual step of appearing onstage to grimly inform the audience of Levine’s absence due to lingering back issues. Newhouse didn’t hear that announcement; he chose to remain in his dressing room until the orchestra began tuning. Then he walked to the podium and, after a lengthy pause, lifted his baton.

No one — not Newhouse, not the orchestra — would claim that Thursday’s performance was a pinnacle of playing or interpretation. There was a sense, watching and hearing the piece, that conductor and orchestra were reaching uncertainly toward one another. It wasn’t clear, at points, whether the conductor was leading the orchestra or following its lead.

“There were places where I was beating things the same way [Levine] had, just because I didn’t want to confuse anybody,’’ he recalls. But because each conductor’s stick technique is different, “that wasn’t 100 percent comfortable for me, and I’m sure it wasn’t 100 percent comfortable for the orchestra either. It’s like you’re wearing someone else’s suit, in a way.’’

By the time of the final performance, the following Tuesday evening, the dynamic on stage had changed. Newhouse’s gestures had become more precise; the flow of the music and the rapport with the orchestra were clearer. If the first concert was a compromise, this one was clearly his performance.

“That’s exactly the distance I felt I’d covered,’’ says the conductor when told of this impression. “By Tuesday, I definitely felt . . . this was how I felt about the piece and how I wanted to pace it. And I felt like the orchestra and I were basically on the same page.’’

“He did very well, and I was very, very proud of the orchestra for how we played,’’ says concertmaster Lowe, who added that during the performances the orchestra “was still sort of reeling from everything . . . that’s transpired in the last week and a half.’’

Lowe understands the tricky negotiation that Newhouse faced between “how much to bring of [his] own interpretive ideas . . . or whether to stick with the game plan that’s already there. . . . And I thought he did exceptionally well. Technically, he’s capable of showing the orchestra anything he needs to, and I think the connection with the emotional depth and character that’s in the music grew as we went ahead with the week.’’

With his adventure over for now, Newhouse will go back to studying scores and preparing for performances that probably won’t materialize. He will guest conduct in a few places and prepare for his regularly scheduled debut with the orchestra this summer at Tanglewood.

“Someone said to me, ‘Well, I want to wish you to go on to bigger and better things,’ ’’ he says, “but after Mahler 9 with the Boston Symphony, where do you go from here?’’

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com.