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Ed Siegel

A young maestro to assist Levine

By Ed Siegel
November 8, 2009

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THERE’S NO underestimating what James Levine has meant for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. After decades of getting its share of critical drubbings under Seiji Ozawa, the BSO is again hailed as one of the country’s great orchestras. Levine has had as many great performances in New England as Tom Brady.

There’s also no getting around two troubling issues - his health and his taste in contemporary music. Problems of all kinds have kept the 66-year-old Levine off the podium for long stretches and key events - such as last summer at Tanglewood and the Beethoven cycle he was scheduled to conduct this fall at Symphony Hall. Meanwhile, his seeming disdain for many of the most compelling composers of the day has left a huge gap in BSO programming.

There is a solution, though. The current assistants and guest conductors are fine, but what’s really needed is a co-music director, preferably a young one. This may not sit well with Levine, who has remade the BSO as a warm, passionate, disciplined orchestra that can scale Mahlerian heights and then tackle the thorny scores of Elliot Carter, whom he has championed more than any other living composer.

But the big news on the orchestral scene this year has been what’s happening at the New York and Los Angeles philharmonics, where 42-year-old Alan Gilbert and 28-year-old Gustavel Dudamel, respectively, have injected a Bernstein-like burst of energy into those orchestras. Dudamel has been getting rock-star treatment in LA.

Both had their opening concerts televised on PBS, presenting a new face of classical music - and we’re not just talking about the multicultural appearance of the two. (Gilbert’s mother is of Japanese descent and Dudamel hails from Venezuela.) More to the point, they both presented important composers at their premiere concerts who are at the opposite end of the tonal spectrum from Carter and who don’t appear on Levine programs.

Magnus Lindberg, the exciting Finnish composer whose compositions regularly make it onto critics’ end-of-year lists, is composer in residence for New York, which commissioned his “EXPO’’ for the inaugural piece. Meanwhile, Dudamel has a steady diet of new work from North and South America this season, with a special concentration on John Adams, whose scintillating “City Noir’’ opened LA’s season. Adams is creative chair for LA.

The two conductors are obviously trying to open the tent to new listeners. LA’s Green Umbrella series even walks the line in some of the concerts between classical and rock music.

Which is not what we want from Levine. For those who saw the opening LA concert it’s obvious that Dudamel has a long way to go - his conducting of Mahler’s First Symphony was choppy; Levine’s conducting of Mahler is spectacular. (Listen to the BSO’s recording of the Sixth under Levine.) Gilbert’s conducting of Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique’’ at his inaugural was fine, but Levine’s Berlioz is thrilling.

But even in the best of times, a musical director is only on the podium half the time. If Levine had a strong co-director then he or she could help the BSO reach other audiences; have Green Umbrella series of its own, focusing on composers who don’t ring Levine’s bell.

This would hardly be unprecedented. Leonard Bernstein was a prominent assistant for Serge Koussevitzky in Boston and Artur Rodzinski in New York. Michael Tilson Thomas led his own contemporary series for the BSO while assisting William Steinberg.

Someone of that caliber may or may not be on hand to fill in for Levine all the time. The better the conductor, the more he or she would be in demand elsewhere.

Neither Bernstein nor Tilson Thomas, sadly, got the main BSO job when it became available. This time they might want to start grooming a successor. Robert Spano, former BSO assistant, has done wonders with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and has far-ranging taste in contemporary music.

Failing that, is there another Dudamel out there? If so, now’s the time to grab him or her. Even great quarterbacks need strong backups. And the BSO right now needs one desperately.

Ed Siegel is former theater and television critic for the Globe.

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