BSO grapples with problem of James Levine’s health

Alternative? Michael Tilson Thomas who has a long history with the BSO.

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Mixed reactions of sympathy and despair greeted the announcement that James Levine would not be able to conduct any of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s performances at Tanglewood this summer.


Most BSO watchers knew the announcement was coming, the only thing that held it up was the time needed to find alternate conductors. Once that was done, the sad news was released.

“This has been a tough year for all of us associated with the BSO, but for no one more than James Levine,” said BSO Managing Director Mark Volpe.

On the positive side, several of the world’s most prestigious conductors will fill in for the six BSO concerts and three Tanglewood Music Center programs to have been led by James Levine, including Michael Tilson Thomas (July 9, 16, and 17), Christoph von Dohnányi (August 1 and 2), and Hans Graf (July 25). In addition, Johannes Debus, music director of the Canadian Opera Company, will make his BSO debut on July 23.

“My doctors have told me I have made great progress—even beyond their expectations—but have advised me to err on the side of caution and take the summer off to recuperate more fully from the two back surgeries of this past year,” Levine was quoted as saying in the BSO news release.

James Levine has had a string of health problems that have prevented him from fulfilling his duties as Maestro of both the Boston Symphony and The Metropolitan Opera. He was foolishly overextended from the moment he agreed to head both organizations. They are each full time jobs, that if done right, demand an immense commitment of time, talent and energy. I don’t understand how Trustees of these fine organizations allowed such a situation, they must have had stars in their eyes.

Then came his problems: In 2006, the conductor fell onstage during a performance with the Boston Symphony and had to undergo surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff. This was followed by kidney surgery in 2008, surgery for a herniated disk near his neck last year and, most recently, the lower-back surgery he is still in recovery from.

Aging conductors and aging patrons are a problem that larger classical music organizations have yet to solve. The result is that when ticket buyers at Ttanglewood and Lincoln Center see Levine’s name they have to allow for the possibility that he won’t show. That’s got to hurt subscriptions and ticket sales.

Levine is far from the only conductor with problems. Earlier Seiji Ozawa cancelled his Tanglewood dates this summer as well. This was a personal disappointment since he was the Music Director of the BSO when I worked there with Peter Gelb, my famous colleague who is now under a lot of pressure at The Met.

In years past, the biggest decision Berkshire ticket buyers had to make about Tanglewood were things like what kind of wine to bring, and whether a sweater or a slicker were called for. Funny thing is that though the changes in conductor have produced some heated talk, very few ticket buyers have actually asked for a refund. In fact, in the Berkshires, I believe that Levine is not the big draw, but rather the Tanglewood experience itself. One only needs look at the immense success of popular artists like James Taylor whose popularity far outstrips even the venerable BSO and Boston Pops.

Mr. Levine’s health problems have also affected his other job as Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera. He led only 12 performances there last season. To alleviate the situation, the Met has appointed Fabio Luisi as Principal Guest Conductor starting next season.

James Levine conducting the BSO in 2008 following surgery for what proved to be a cancerous tumor. Michael Lutch photo.

And there is something to be learned from that. At $1.6 million a year (contingent however, on showing up), his fly-in, fly-out BSO appearances are far from a commitment to be the orchestra’s full time music director.

Yet carping aside, Levine deserves credit for restoring the orchestra to its former glory, though his absence is showing.

Another part of his genius is his ability to read the public’s mind about what music they want to hear, before they even realize it.

He has been one step ahead of the BSO’s traditional audiences, though has not made much progress with younger ticket buyers, upon whom the BSO’s legacy will soon rest.

Under Munch, Leinsdorf and Ozawa, we heard very little Mahler. Levine chose his Resurrection Symphony for the season opener, and Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) is actually a better choice to conduct the piece than Levine. At the San Francisco Symphony, which was once a second tier orchestra, the growth as a premiere ensemble has taken place  during his tenure.

Under MTT they have recorded the complete Mahler cycle, while the BSO has recorded little under Levine – the Brahms German Requiem and Daphnis & Chloe .  Tilson Thomas also has a long history with the BSO, going back to his early days at Tanglewood in 1968-69 as a student under Bernstein and Leinsdorf. Back in the 70’s the BSO hired him to lead a series of unique evening programs for new, younger concert goers in an attempt to develop new audiences. He was a superb teacher and the concerts were well attended, They were full of 20-somethings and accomplished their goal of bringing new people to classical music. Many of my peers were among the converts.

In San Francisco, MTT and the SFS continue audience outreach in a substantial way, using the social media, You Tube and whatever other tools are at their disposal to keep the idea of classical music in the minds of younger people. At the BSO we see at the top a group of very old men whose health and vigor are waning.

While it is indisputable that age and experience continually enrich and broaden a musicians knowledge and depth, time does take its toll, with health and stamina taking a serious hit.

Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, will lead the BSO’s Opening Night program of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, Resurrection, with vocalists Layla Claire and Stephanie Blythe, on July 9, and the BSO program of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Mozart’s Requiem on July 16.

Mr. Tilson Thomas will also lead the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 on July 17. In addition, MTT, along with Stefan Asbury, will work with TMC Conducting Fellows during the rehearsal process for the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra July 12 program (Bach’s Ricercare from The Musical Offering, arranged by Webern, Schubert’s Symphony No. 5, and Strauss’s Suite from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme).

This is the kind of involvement with the Orchestra and school that is ideal.

It is time for the BSO to consider making Levine their second conductor emeritus. Not put him out to pasture, per se, but give to the maestro a less difficult role with the venerable organization, and to bring in a new younger conductor, one who can truly teach, conduct and program for the future, not the past.

They could do worse than talk with Michael Tilson Thomas. After 15 years at the San Francisco, he might be up for a change.

At the moment James Levine is without a contract, having failed to sign the latest extension offered by the BSO. And both Levine and Tilson-Thomas have similar compensation packages.

While Levine has been suffering a failure of health, the Trustees of the BSO have long suffered from a failure of imagination. Since they control the purse strings, there is little that can be done about it. Perhaps as ticket sales fail to meet expectations they will, belatedly, realize that the problem is not only with a conductor in failing health, but with the very leadership of the BSO. Theirs.


The most recent compilation of top orchestras I could find is a couple of years old, and from Gramaphone, a British music magazine. The Chicago, as usual, was picked as the best American orchestra.

1. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam 

2. Berlin Philharmonic 

3. Vienna Philharmonic 

4. London Symphony Orchestra 

5. Chicago Symphony Orchestra 

6. Bavarian Radio Symphony 

7. Cleveland Orchestra 

8. Los Angeles Philharmonic

9. Budapest Festival Orchestra 

10. Dresden Staatskapelle

 11. Boston Symphony Orchestra 

12. New York Philharmonic 

13. San Francisco Symphony 

14. Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra

15. Russian National Orchestra 

16. Leningrad Philharmonic 

17. Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra 

18. Metropolitan Opera Orchestra 

19. Saito Kinen Symphony Orchestra 

20. Czech Philharmonic

One thought on “BSO grapples with problem of James Levine’s health

  1. MTT is not necessarily a young conductor . He was born a year after Levine making him 66. Vasily Petrenko, born in 1976 conducted the BSO in an all Russian program which included the Shostakovich 10th. Petrenko now leads the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in the UK and just might be the ticket! What the BSO needs is someone really young and able with no baggage, no nostalgia attached (He was good back then …). BSO management should think seriously about appointing him

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