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James Levine, shown rehearsing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra last week, has agreed to adjustments in programs.
James Levine, shown rehearsing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra last week, has agreed to adjustments in programs. (Globe Staff Photo / Dominic Chavez)

Levine's pace proves hard on BSO

Along with wide acclaim come physical stresses

The Boston Symphony Orchestra may be getting rave reviews, but its members are increasingly worn out. Players are asking the music director, James Levine, to shorten the length of the programs and to ease a rehearsal schedule that has aggravated injuries, generated stress, and speeded one veteran violist's retirement.

Levine's meaty programming and strenuous rehearsal calendar have led the players to hold meetings with their leader. The most recent talk was last week, and Levine agreed to drop overtures from a pair of summer Brahms concerts at Tanglewood. Concerned about the wear and tear on the orchestra's 94 members, BSO management is also bringing in a consultant this summer to tutor the players on avoiding injury.

A 16-minute Bach prelude has been sliced from tonight's planned program. The concert is being presented only two days after the BSO finished up a multiperformance run of the three-hour Wagner opera, ''The Flying Dutchman."

Like most musicians and critics who have praised Levine's debut season, Steven Ansell, the BSO's principal violist, says he's proud of what the orchestra is accomplishing musically. But his sore shoulder, an injury from playing tennis more than 20 years ago, has been aggravated.

And he's not the only one in pain.

''It hasn't kept me from playing so far but if I were to keep up with a schedule like this over the next 4 or 5 years, maybe it would," Ansell said. ''You don't want to have injuries shortening your career."

Just as top athletes deal with hamstring pulls and sore rotator cuffs, professional musicians regularly face the physical stresses that come with their jobs. This BSO season has created a particular set of challenges, a number of players have said.

To start, Levine has held more rehearsals than previous conductors. During the season, which runs from September to May, the BSO has rehearsed 118 times, compared with 104 during the 2003-2004 season.

Music directors typically hold four rehearsals a week, each running about 2½ hours. But for several programs, Levine has held five, six, even seven rehearsals.

Compounding the rehearsal load has been Levine's own schedule. In the future, he'll be in Boston only three or four weeks at a time, with guest conductors -- some of whom hold only three rehearsals per program -- breaking up his sessions. But this year, Levine's commitment to his other job, leading the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, has forced him to get a late start in Boston and to stay for seven weeks in a row during the fall.

''Generally, morale is very good," said flute player Fenwick Smith, the chairman of the orchestra's Player Committee, who met with Levine last week. ''There's a sense that the orchestra is in a very different position artistically than it has been in previous years. There's also widespread agreement that we work very hard when Levine is here."

After Levine's second program, which ran into the first week of November, players began to complain.

Bonnie Bewick, a violinist in the BSO since 1987, strained a muscle in her left arm during those shows. Unlike some of her colleagues -- she counts at least a half-dozen violinists who have missed performances -- Bewick has been able to play through the pain.

''When I have my palm facing the floor, and turn so it faces the sky, I get sharp shooting pains from the wrist to the elbow," she said. ''Unfortunately, that's how you pick up the violin and place it on your shoulder."

Bewick did not blame her injury on Levine. She noted that she has two small children, and that carrying them created a strain. But she still questioned the workload at Symphony Hall.

''He's a brilliant musician, and everything he says is right on," Bewick said. ''And he gets the orchestra to really think and listen. But I'm concerned about the schedule and the programming."

Levine has not been deaf to the complaints. He's the one who decided, without any urging, to cut tonight's Bach prelude. He did it after a concert in October.

''I thought, 'This program has about 10 or 15 minutes when the audience is feeling the length and the orchestra is feeling the length,' " Levine said in an interview last week. ''Which means it's wrong."

Last week, he also decided, after meeting with player representatives, to make other changes. Next season, the BSO will play Schumann's Symphony No. 4, rather than Symphony No. 2, at the request of the players, because it's shorter and it's considered less physically demanding than the previously scheduled piece.

Levine will also shift extra rehearsals from Monday -- typically a day off for the players -- to another day of the week.

The tensions over the intense schedule did not surprise Mark Volpe, the BSO's managing director.

''Anybody who thought it was going to be an easy year wasn't listening," Volpe said. ''This is the first year of a guy who, at his own admission, is a maximalist. I would have been surprised if there weren't any tension."

Not only did the BSO have a new schedule to adjust to, it was also coming off two years without a full-time music director. What's more, Levine's interest in bringing in new works and 20th-century music has challenged the players. Familiar warhorses such as Mozart and Beethoven generally take less time to prepare than new pieces by such composers as Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter.

Viola player Burton Fine retired at the end of December, after 41 years with the BSO. He now says he would have finished out the season if it hadn't been so tiring.

''We had been accustomed over the years to doing two-hour programs," Fine said. ''And [Levine] seems, when we program, to push the programming to the legal limit under the contract, closer to 2½ hours. You can't really complain about this because that's the way the man works."

Part of the problem, for both the players and Levine, is their own competitive impulses, says Dr. Alice Brandfonbrener, founder of the Medical Program for Performing Artists at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. The players want to please Levine, and to show him that the orchestra can play at a higher level. The maestro knows that the music world is watching, and that it expects him to rejuvenate the BSO.

''What you're seeing is an inevitable adjustment period between an orchestra that is delighted to have this high-profile, wonderful music director and a music director who is somewhat insensitive to the lifestyle of some of his orchestra members," Brandfonbrener said. ''And he has to make some compromises. He's learning, obviously. I would suspect that if they can all kind of back off and understand it's a period of adjustment, they'll come through it."

In the meantime, the BSO is bringing in outside help. Janet Horvath, a cellist with the Minnesota Orchestra and author of ''Playing (less) Hurt," will come to Tanglewood this summer for a session with the BSO.

She notes that even under the best of circumstances, musicians are under considerable strain. A Mahler symphony can demand as much as 6,400 left-hand finger movements from a string player.

''If that isn't athletic, I don't know what is," Horvath said.

This summer, Horvath will come with the tools of her trade: splints and slings for players looking for support, and a list of stretching exercises. She'll also offer the players advice on protecting themselves, so that they're able to get through a particularly challenging season.

Sheila Fiekowsky has already made adjustments. The violinist, a member of the BSO since 1975, prepared for Levine. She kept her outside schedule free, scheduling no recitals. She made sure to pace herself during rehearsals. When an October program left her with a sore right arm, she took a painkiller.

Fiekowsky doesn't want Levine to change a thing.

''The thing that I love about him is, it's all about the music," she said. ''These concerts are so exciting."

Geoff Edgers can be reached at

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