Right Man for the Job

Why does James Levine have to build the Boston Symphony?

I've heard nothing but acclaim for James Levine's appointment as music director of the Boston Symphony and was thrilled to hear the news myself. I've also been impressed that the excitement doesn't only come from music critics; it echoes just as strongly inside the music business, especially from people who work with orchestras. Sometimes we hear questions about other new appointments -- about Franz Welser-Möst, for instance, music director-designate of the Cleveland Orchestra. Does he really have the stature for the post? Is Christoph Eschenbach good enough for Philadelphia? Is Lorin Maazel plausible at all for the New York Philharmonic? But nobody has doubts about Mr. Levine. Everyone assumes -- and rightly so -- that he deserves to lead any world-class orchestra he wants.

And yet there's still a fascinating subtext. We've read, of course, that Mr. Levine is a powerful and serious conductor, and that the Boston Symphony musicians love him. But we've also heard he's good at building orchestras. What does that mean?
It means he makes an orchestra play better -- more incisively, more in tune, with better balance among the instruments, and with deeper understanding of the great composers' styles. And he does this not just at each concert, but also cumulatively, when he stays with an orchestra for many years.
It's true that good musicians play decently on their own. (Some will even swear, with seasoned cynicism, that they're on their own a lot, because when certain individuals stand before them on the podium, they might as well be leaderless.) But they do much better with someone who'll set high standards and maintain them. Orchestra managements often think of this when they look for music directors. Thus, the San Francisco Symphony -- left in problematic shape by Edo de Waart, its music director from 1977 to 1985 -- was happy with Herbert Blomstedt as de Waart's successor; the management knew he wasn't too exciting, but also knew he could restore discipline. When the much more stimulating Michael Tilson Thomas took over in 1995, he had a solid instrument to work with. Similarly, Kurt Masur has strengthened the New York Philharmonic since he arrived in 1991.

We know that Mr. Levine can build an orchestra, because we've heard him do it at the Metropolitan Opera, where he's been in charge since 1973, first as principal conductor, then with titles escalating all the way to his present post, artistic director. But why should this special talent matter in his new position? Why didn't we all praise Mr. Welser-Möst, or Mr. Eschenbach, or most of all Mr. Maazel (a master of his craft) as builders of an orchestra, or else worry because they didn't have that skill?
It might be because Cleveland, Philadelphia and New York don't need much building, while Boston, as everybody in the business knows, has problems. It's not that the musicians don't rank with the best in the world, because of course they do. But after 29 years of Seiji Ozawa, they don't play together nearly as well as they might, and everybody thinks that Mr. Levine can fix that.

What else is at stake in his appointment? Already there might loom a consequence for orchestras' rehearsal schedules. Mr. Levine, it's been reported, wouldn't take the Boston job unless he was allowed to rearrange rehearsal time, so he'd get more of it in weeks when he conducts difficult scores. Other weeks, when he chooses easier music, he'd get less. It's strange to think that this is revolutionary, but it is. Orchestral musicians, always wary of orchestral managements, want to set in stone, long in advance, precisely how much time they'll have to work each week. Now, at least in Boston, they sound more flexible -- and they committed themselves to this major change without waiting for their next new contract, which is astonishing.
For Mark Volpe, the Boston Symphony's chief executive (and one of the best in his business), Mr. Levine's appointment is a triumph. When he took his job in 1996, he surely knew the orchestra had problems. Two years after that, he told me that he hoped to stay for many years and in fact to finish his career with the Symphony. That meant his legacy would be the post-Ozawa future, which now he's put so stunningly in place. Best of all -- and the ultimate achievement, in a job like his -- is that he's bringing stunning music to his city.
For Mr. Levine, I have a question. He's known for his support of the past generations' atonal modernism, and conducts complex atonal works by Schoenberg, Webern, Berg and Milton Babbitt, both at the Met and in symphonic concerts he conducts with the Met orchestra at Carnegie Hall. His programs this year in Munich -- to the degree that he programs new music there at all -- have the same emphasis. But at the Met he also commissioned an opera by John Corigliano, who's hardly an atonal modernist, and works (upcoming) by Tobias Picker and Tan Dun, whose styles are also more contemporary. So what will he do at the Boston Symphony? Will he present a full spectrum of new American music, including pop-related works by young composers?

Finally, there's a question everybody asks. Apart from the Met, Mr. Levine is also music director of the Munich Philharmonic. It's assumed he'll leave that post in 2004, the year when his Munich contract ends and he assumes his Boston title. He'll stay at the Met, though, and so the question is what he'll do if both jobs together prove too much for him.
It seem reasonable to guess he'll favor Boston. Already we've learned that his commitment at the Met is changing, at least in name; he'll revert to a former title, becoming only the music director of the opera house, instead of running all aspects of its artistic operation. And in one important way, Boston is a step up, even for someone who, like Mr. Levine, already ranks among the world's four or five top conductors. The Met is glamorous and powerful; no one would deny that. But for conductors, symphonic work has more prestige than opera, and Boston gives Mr. Levine the one career peak he hasn't reached -- full control of one of the great symphonic orchestras.

In 1998, I wrote in much more detail about the Boston Symphony's problems under Ozawa. This piece caused a stir, to put it mildly, which you can read about right here on this site.

A brief note about Christoph Eschenbach. It's true that people ask if he's good enough for the Philadelphia Orchestra. But I've gotten to know a lot about him recently -- and to know him personally -- and I have to say that these fears are overrated. Eschenbach is an unusual conductor, one who only cares about music. He tries for the deepest expression possible, and when he fails, he can overstimulate an orchestra, which might make them play roughly. Thus, he has a reputation in the orchestra world as someone who "over-conducts." But with an orchestra he knows (like the Houston Symphony, where he was music director for many years), the results can be stunning -- precise, lush, spontaneous, and personal. I think Philadelphia is in for a treat. 

Wall Street Journal, November 5, 2001