Wednesday, March 2, 2011
The Levine transition
But somehow I'm not sad. I suppose I was the first critic to say, three or four years ago, that the BSO-Levine marriage wasn't going to work out - so yes, I feel a bit vindicated in having another of my cultural predictions come true. And I admit some of my skepticism toward Levine's tenure came from my skepticism toward him personally. I won't go into the rumors that have always swirled around him in the gay world (or the new ones that are swirling around him now). But I will say that at this point the whole "glass closet" phenomenon, which is still prevalent in high culture (particularly classical music culture) only irritates me, and I find those who indulge it a little creepy.
Oh, well. On the artistic side of the equation, for those whose experience of classical music has been centered on the BSO, I can appreciate that after years of tolerating Seiji Ozawa, James Levine must have seemed like a genius. Levine's work is always subtle and marvelously detailed - he's a brilliant conductor (particularly of opera), even if his ethos is more that of a musical gourmand, I think, than that of a really engaged artist. Still, there's no arguing with the fact that under his baton, the BSO - a famously recalcitrant crowd - sounded better than it had in years. At the same time, Levine never really "transformed" the orchestra (it often slid back to its old status quo when he wasn't around), and he certainly never crafted a "Boston sound," either. He was a wonderfully talented opera conductor who flew in every now and then from New York to work his magic. So I really don't see how this announcement changes the essentials of that arrangement. I don't see why Levine can't fly in and out in the future just as he did in the past (indeed, as a guest conductor, perhaps he can visit almost as often as he actually did for the past few years, discounting all the missed dates).
But here's the key point the BSO management should remember moving forward: the Levine era is OVER. The surest way to cripple the orchestra over the long term is to create a kind of "shadow" artistic directorship, where the generally-absent Levine is still the 800-pound artistic gorilla in the room. The BSO needs a strong music director moving forward, and that means very probably limiting Levine's influence to that of any other guest conductor. Otherwise we'll be facing several more years like the past two. In other words, it's time to move on.