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Levine in Boston – it's gone beyond a joke

February 26, 2011 by Norman Lebrecht

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Reports of indiscipline in the Boston Symphony Orchestra after James Levine’s latest health withdrawal need to be taken very seriously indeed. According to the Boston Herald players were seen giggling and sniggering during Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, under substitute conductor Sean Newhouse. There’s no excuse for that.

Levine’s brother says he may scale back his Boston involvement in future, but it’s too late for half-measures if the orchestra cannot play a an end-of-life symphony with a straight face. Levine needs to resign now, for the sake of Boston’s reputation.

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  1. Brian says:

    Levine has always been so closely guarded about his personal life and past that it’s impossible to know what’s really going on. We get the careful statements he puts out through the Met and the BSO and the news media mostly doesn’t dig below the surface (could you imagine a similar level of polite deference to say, a Tiger Woods or a Charlie Sheen?).
    One could argue it’s nobody’s business, but the Met and BSO are non-profit institutions that rely on public and private funding sources. It seems people have a certain right to know what’s happening with the organizations’ main figurehead.

  2. Thomas says:

    I have such high regard for Jimmy, but does he think he’s invincible? Are the head honchos at the BSO and the Met so blinded by their respect and awe for the maestro that they can’t tell him directly he’s not fit for the jobs and the travel? All of us on the planet fear he won’t see the Ring through to completion; indeed I thought he would be in traction for Das Rheingold.
    So Norman, all knowing one,who is to be his successor?
    NL replies: First he needs to quit.

  3. Marie Lamb says:

    It’s disheartening news, but I am not surprised from what I’ve seen of Levine’s condition. When I saw the live Met HD transmission of “Don Pasquale” a couple of months back, I was struck by how fragile Levine seems these days. He had to conduct sitting down, as Arthur Fiedler had to do when he was in frail health late in his career. Conducting while seated used to be standard practice for opera conductors a century or more ago, but it isn’t now, and it was certainly necessary here for health reasons. Also, in one shot of Levine, I saw him gripping his shoulder in pain while continuing to conduct, and the look on his face spoke volumes. When he came out for a curtain call, he was using a cane and was holding the curtain, presumably for extra support. Although I’ve certainly admired Levine’s great musicianship over the years, and I don’t blame him for wanting to stay active, something has got to give. The BSO and the Met both depend so much on him, but he’s clearly not well enough to handle both jobs. The BSO discipline problem mentioned in the Boston Herald reflects badly upon the musicians involved, but it also reflects what happens when there’s not strong enough leadership to prevent or address such problems. I suspect that this would not have become a problem if Levine had been well enough to give consistent leadership, and to maintain standards of discipline and professional conduct. Such misbehavior wouldn’t be tolerated in a high school or youth orchestra, and it certainly has no place in a major orchestra like the BSO, but there’s clearly not enough leadership at the top to stop it. Under the circumstances, sad to say, I have to agree that it’s time for Levine to give serious thought to dropping the Boston music director’s job, both for his own health and for the Boston Symphony’s health.

  4. Theresa says:

    But Brian, of what real meaning to anyone is anything the press has brought us about Tiger Woods or Charlie Sheen? Except to demonstrate the obsession with celebrities no matter how vacuous? What has that to do with Levine, who makes a significant and increasingly rare contribution to keeping our cultural heads above water?

  5. TA says:

    @Theresa
    I think you missed Brian’s point. If the media reports on every peccadillo and mistep by nobodies like Sheen and Woods, then all the more reason to keep the public well apprised of the health of someone like James Levine.
    Levine–on top of directing two world-class musical organizations–commands the devotion of hundreds of subscribers and thousands of casual concert goers. Not to mention that his name also carries with him extra clout when looking for donations from various philanthropic groups.
    Thus the need for the classical music press to forego discretion and report the news boldly and truthfully.

  6. Brian says:

    @TA exactly my point. For better or worse, we live in a culture in which public celebrities are subject to constant and intense media scrutiny. Yet Levine is treated with kid gloves by the press in whatever city he lives in. The irony is, major philanthropy doesn’t rest on the behavior of Charlie Sheen, whereas it most certainly does with someone like Levine.


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