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Who will pick up the baton?

A look inside the BSO search for James Levine’s successor

By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / September 25, 2011

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It’s official. James Levine’s name has been taken off the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s logo, his conducting chairs packed into storage closets. The post-Levine era has begun.

As the BSO, which opens its new season on Friday, sets out on its search for the next music director, questions have been swirling about the process itself and what the public can expect. Conductor searches are, of course, routine in the business, but it’s been a while in Boston. After Seiji Ozawa stepped down from the BSO podium in 2002, the orchestra and Levine essentially knew they wanted to work together, and that “search’’ was more a matter of working out the details between two interested parties. In most practical senses, it’s been - remarkably - almost 40 years since the orchestra ramped up for an industry-wide conductor search, for a successor to William Steinberg, who stepped down in 1972.

Major artistic challenges and potential opportunities face the BSO at this juncture, and I’ll address them in a future story. But first, the nuts and bolts. Here are answers to the most commonly posed questions on the current search, as well as some fascinating “what-ifs’’ from the search that found Ozawa some four decades ago.

How long will it take to choose Levine’s successor?

Short answer: Probably a very long time.

The schedules of big orchestras and prominent conductors are typically planned out years ahead, so conductor searches tend to move at a glacial pace. BSO managing director Mark Volpe, in his first interview since Levine’s resignation went into effect Sept. 1, declined to be more specific. “Whether it’s going to be a year or two, I don’t want to frankly lock into a timetable because I don’t know,’’ he said. “And I don’t want to tempt fate.’’

It’s reasonable to speculate that a thorough search will require at least two full seasons before someone is identified, and it will often take at least one season before the designate is ready to start. (To cite just one recent example, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra had no official music director between June 2006, when Daniel Barenboim stepped down, and September 2010, when Riccardo Muti began.) A relatively quick resolution at the BSO would mean a new music director for the fall of 2014. It could be even later.

Who does the BSO see as its leading prospects?

Short answer: No comment.

Big orchestras still routinely keep searches secret, even internally. Zarin Mehta, executive director of the New York Philharmonic, recently said in an interview that the players of his orchestra themselves did not know that Alan Gilbert would be their next music director until the morning of the public announcement. Volpe put the rationale this way: “A lot of the conductors are of a stature that they can’t be perceived to be candidates. If they are perceived to be candidates, they may have to withdraw just to protect their current position.’’

Interestingly, many smaller orchestras and regional groups have been taking the opposite approach, inviting the public to participate actively in the selection process, with focus groups and the like. Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras, sees this as a national trend. “It’s become a whole way of enlivening a season as people are eager to see the next candidate, fill out their form, and figure out who the next music director is going to be,’’ he said. That’s roughly the approach, for instance, that the Longwood Symphony Orchestra is taking with its own conductor search currently underway. (The publicly announced Longwood finalists are David Commanday, Federico Cortese, Ronny Feldman, Lawrence Isaacson, Edward Jones, and Susan Davenny Wyner.)

What is the current mood at Symphony Hall?

Short answer: Grateful for an end to uncertainty.

“I can say institutionally,’’ said Volpe, “that there’s a certain degree of sadness but a certain relief that we can now move on. The way Jimmy closed was sad to witness for not just the public, but for the people onstage. The orchestra has been financially stable and artistically stable. But it was at some level debilitating, and frankly the uncertainty was weighing. Now we can move on.’’

Two BSO players - violist Edward Gazouleas and principal horn James Sommerville, both of whom serve on the search committee - recently echoed Volpe’s sentiments. “I think it was probably a relief for the majority of people,’’ said Sommerville, “just to know where we were going. You can imagine it was very anxious for many of us, with all the cancellations and uncertainty.’’

Gazouleas compared the orchestra’s current mood to where it was six months or one year ago and said, “now we’re in the same position, we just know who’s going to conduct.’’ He added, “I think the overriding value of the orchestra is professionalism, and we have conductors engaged, we have programs going, and we will deliver them. There’s no hand-wringing.’’

What exactly is the job description?

Short answer: A ‘great’’ conductor, not necessarily at Tanglewood.

All parties of course emphasize the necessity of good chemistry with the orchestral players and exciting results onstage. “That’s No. 1, and 2, and 3, and 4,’’ said Gazouleas. “It would be perfect,’’ added Sommerville, if musical excellence could come with the leadership qualities needed to create “a vision of what the BSO is going to look like in 10 years.’’

Beyond that apparently lies some flexibility. Volpe said that while the orchestra’s preference would be to find a music director who could also be the director of Tanglewood, the two assignments don’t necessarily have to come as a package. (Does this mean they’re eyeing a conductor with a longstanding summer commitment?) Volpe also added that he would like someone who could be “a moral force for music in the community.’’

Throughout Levine’s tenure, the conductor’s detractors and fans both worried about his being spread too thin between Boston and New York. On the subject of multiple podiums, Volpe said that the BSO should be the next conductor’s priority, but that he wasn’t naive. “Name a leading conductor in the world that only has one relationship,’’ he said. “It doesn’t exist - at whatever age you’re talking about.’’

Who is on the search committee?

Short answer: 12 members in total, including BSO trustees, musicians, and executives.

The committee consists of five trustees (Edmund Kelly, Stephen B. Kay, Robert O’Block, Paul Buttenwieser, and Joyce Linde); five musicians (Gazouleas, Sommerville, Malcolm Lowe, Jason Horowitz, and Robert Sheena); and two BSO executives (Volpe and artistic administrator Anthony Fogg).

How will orchestra personnel issues, such as auditions, be handled without a music director?

Short answer: Almost the same as before.

During his period as music director, Levine did not actually attend many auditions, even before his series of medical leaves. According to the BSO, he was present at the auditions of only six players who joined the orchestra during his tenure. An additional 17 musicians were appointed without his participation, mostly through committees of orchestral players. “We are probably unique among American orchestras, that even with the music director,’’ said Volpe, “a lot of the hiring and tenure decisions have been made without the music director’s involvement. So we’ll just continue that process, which is now built into the contract and the culture of the orchestra.’’

“The orchestra goes about its business in a very productive way without the day-to-day administrative presence of a music director,’’ Gazouleas noted proudly, “which is not to minimize the importance of the position.’’ Asked if the directorless interim period might actually build a sense of enfranchisement among his colleagues, Sommerville said, “the structure of the orchestra is not going to change into one that’s much more musician-driven, but I think it’s an opportunity for those who want to seize it. It’s a bit of a vacuum.’’

Is the orchestra considering an interim “caretaker’’ appointment?

Short answer: Not at the moment.

Orchestras often ask prominent conductors to keep at least a few fingers on the tiller during periods of transition, leading performances and helping to shape a season’s programming. Charles Dutoit has done so at the Philadelphia Orchestra. At the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, after Barenboim departed, both Bernard Haitink and Pierre Boulez took up leadership roles until its next music director, Muti, was installed, a full four years later.

The BSO currently has two named conductors: Ozawa, whose health has been precarious, is its music director laureate, and Haitink, who will lead the closing three weeks of this season, is its conductor emeritus. Volpe sounded skeptical about additional temporary appointments.

“We’re not at that stage,’’ he said. “We’re feeling good about where we are. I don’t think there’s a real sense of urgency. Even just the word ‘caretaker’ suggests something that’s not entirely exciting, so I don’t think that’s something we’re headed to anytime quickly.’’

Programming during the interim period, Volpe said, would be handled by himself and Fogg, working together with an artistic advisory committee made up of BSO players, “probably more closely than typically in the past.’’

How has the search process evolved over time?

Short answer: More involvement from musicians.

Once nonexistent, player participation in searches is now written into the BSO’s contract. Even when the orchestra is not in a formal search period, players are asked to log into a secure site to rate every guest conductor who appears before them. Of course one might wonder just how completely the interests of the musicians overlap with the interests of the public, but that’s a question for another day.

BSO trustee John Thorndike, the last living member of the committee that searched for a music director to succeed Steinberg in the early 1970s, confirmed that there was not a single orchestra player on that search committee. It had just six members, he said, and often met in a Boston eating club to discuss candidates.

Thorndike, in a recent phone interview from his home in Dover, also confirmed the longstanding rumor that, prior to identifying Ozawa, the committee spoke with conductor Colin Davis, and “investigated very thoroughly’’ his potential prospects with the orchestra. Davis, however, was committed to raising his then-young family in England, according to Thorndike. He also recalled that Leonard Bernstein took an interest in the search, summoning the committee to his home in Connecticut to deliver his own opinion. “Four of us went down and met with him,’’ Thorndike said. “He told us what we should be doing, and we kind of gulped. We went back and did not follow his specific advice.’’

The advice Bernstein gave, according to Thorndike, was that the BSO should hire Michael Tilson Thomas. But Thomas, then a BSO assistant conductor and still in his 20s, did not have sufficient support among the BSO players at the time, Thorndike said, so the committee kept searching, eventually identifying Ozawa. “I think Lenny saw his own situation repeated,’’ said Thorndike, referring to Serge Koussevitzky’s advice that the BSO hire Bernstein as Koussevitzky’s own successor. Instead, the board chose Charles Munch.

There is an argument to be made that the conductor-orchestra match has become over-fetishized, especially in an era when music directors may have residences on three continents, and lead as few as 10 weeks of the season. On the other hand, Thorndike’s recollections raise the obvious question: What if the orchestra had chosen Bernstein to succeed Koussevitzky, or Thomas to succeed Steinberg? The BSO today would be an altogether different orchestra. That’s partly because the Ozawa era ended up lasting almost three decades, but also because music director appointments do take on a significance larger than the sum total of the music-making produced by conductor and orchestra. Fairly or not, they periodize orchestral history, shape long-term artistic and institutional evolution, and of course come to symbolically represent the orchestra in the eyes of the broader public.

Let’s hope that for the BSO’s newly formed search committee, the stakes of the decision do not prompt an overly cautious choice, which of course would carry its own long-term risks. The BSO needs to choose boldly - but more on that to come.

First in an occasional series on the Boston Symphony Orchestra as it searches for its next music director.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at