ONE OF A KIND In transforming the BSO, Levine made demands on the orchestra and the audience — but delivered revelatory performances.
I’m heartbroken. I’ve just heard that James Levine, after another serious setback to his health, has resigned as the BSO’s music director, a year before his contract was scheduled to expire. The 67-year-old maestro had to cancel his final three remaining Boston programs for this season, as well as an important East Coast tour that was to take the orchestra and its stellar guest soloists to Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. It was the BSO management’s worst-case scenario. (All the upcoming concerts will go on, but with other conductors, and major program changes. Levine’s Metropolitan Opera performances, which are to resume at the end of March, have not so far been affected.)
Levine took over the BSO in 2004. After 29 years under Seiji Ozawa, the orchestra was not in good shape. As the BSO’s very first American music director, Levine quickly transformed the orchestra with his exciting programming, the depth of his interpretations, and a more rigorous approach to orchestral ensemble. He changed the instrumental seating plan from the old-fashioned first-and-second-violins-all-on-the-right to the even older format of first and second violins on opposite sides of the stage, allowing us to follow whatever dialogues composers had created between the two violin sections, and adding a new sonic spaciousness. You could hear the difference at once, and now most guest conductors follow the same plan.
It took a while for Levine’s relationship with the players to settle in. His programs were often extremely long, and he scheduled demanding works, many of them pieces the orchestra had never performed. And some of the players bridled at his conducting technique. All of this took several years to negotiate, but even the earliest results were a revelation of musical insight and technical mastery.
Some of Levine’s programming alienated one or another sector of the audience — people who didn’t especially want to hear much contemporary music, let alone those 100-year-old 20th-century masterpieces. But his new line-up included — along with a lot of Mahler, vocal music, and complete operas (with such Metropolitan Opera stars as Renée Fleming, Deborah Voigt, and the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson) — Schoenberg, Elliott Carter, Charles Wuorinen, and Boston’s John Harbison. Some of these newer pieces, including BSO commissions (like this coming week’s Violin Concerto by the edgy British composer Harrison Birtwistle), have also been attracting a new and often younger audience. And people who stopped going to Ozawa concerts were returning to Symphony Hall in droves.
There were also for the first time in decades serious programming ideas, the most illuminating of which was probably the season (2006–2007) devoted to exploring a comparison between Beethoven and Schoenberg. I think my single favorite Levine concert, if I had to pick just one, was the one in which he both began and ended the evening with an orchestral arrangement of Beethoven’s most complex string quartet movement, the Große Fuge (“Great Fugue”), with the Beethoven and Schoenberg Violin Concertos coming in between. It was a revelation of how Beethoven fed into Schoenberg, and how listening to Schoenberg could help us to understand Beethoven more deeply.