Boston goes headless

Boston goes headless


norman lebrecht

January 23, 2020

Mark Volpe let it be known last night that he’s retiring as president of the Boston Symphony in 14 months’ time.

He will have served the orchestra by that time for 23 years and there’s no obvious successor in sight.

Volpe handled with great discretion the later years of Seiji Ozawa, the awful interrugnum of James Levine and the inspired appointment of Andris Nelsons.

The next chief will need to keep Nelsons challenged and plan for a more diverse future.


with Nelsons, 2014


  • M Brown says:

    A man of great integrity with a distinguished career. The strong relationships among players, guest artists, staff, and board are a testament to his good heart and deft leadership. What a gift to his eventual successor!

    • Roberto says:

      Other than the massive expansion of the endowment, the BSO has been artistically adrift for 20 years now. I wouldn’t want that job, but the orchestra has never been more rich and stagnant. I hope this is the generational turnover we have been waiting for. All things aside, I hope he has a happy retirement.

      • Herr Doktor says:

        Roberto, I’m not sure which Boston Symphony Orchestra you’re listening to that is stagnant. Might it be the Boston, Canada orchestra? The one I hear in Boston, Massachusetts regularly is in great shape and playing at a consistently high level.

  • phf655 says:

    It was an awful interregnum only in hindsight. The rumors of bad behavior swirled around Levine for decades, but didn’t become public until the end of his Boston years. The problems during Levine’s tenure revolved around his health, which was what precipitated his departure. The public in Boston, a city which is a curious combination of the very cosmopolitan and very provincial, was never comfortable about sharing a music director with New York, a city with which Boston has always had a strong rivalry that goes beyond the arts. In the meantime Levine raised the standard of playing in the orchestra, which had fallen substantially during the later part of Ozawa’s tenure, to its current extraordinary level.
    When Levine became music director, the BSO, and Volpe, undoubtedly knew what they were getting, with all of the pluses and minuses, and decided to take the chance. In future decades Levine’s BSO tenure will be viewed differently, just as his staggering achievements at the Met will be remembered with more clarity than his tragic and painful indiscretions.

    • Herr Doktor says:

      Sorry, I disagree, and I’m a BSO subscriber (and you may well be also). Where we agree is that Levine did an outstanding job raising the day-in, day-out playing of the BSO. I always give him that credit, and he deserves it. But as an interpreter of the major symphonic warhorses, Levine isn’t even in the second-tier of talent. I remember sitting dumbfounded listening to inert, emotionally-stilted performance after performance of works like Schubert 9, Beethoven 7, Brahms 2, Dvorak 8, Mozart anything, Schumann 2, etc., which were pretty terrible as interpretations. Well played, yes, but they failed to deliver the emotional goods. There’s probably a very good reason why in my 3000+ collection of CDs, I own exactly 1 James Levine disk: Saint Saens’ Symphony #3. I did think Levine did an EXCELLENT job with his concert performance of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. And I thought his concert performance (which turned out to be his last concert) of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle was stunning. Do you see a pattern here?

      What Levine also inflicted on his audiences was mind-numbing, painful performnces of atonal music. Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, etc., and CONSTANTLY. It was unbearable. It got to the point by his 5th season that we pretty much traded out of all James Levine concerts for other programs–and were much happier.

      So yes, James Levine did leave a lasting legacy with the BSO, and we hear it in every concert Andris Nelsons and others conduct even in 2020. But no, the Levine era musically was awful, and relative to Seiji’s last 3 or 4 seasons (in which Seiji surprisingly rebounded and started giving often very memorable performances), Levine’s tenure was musically worse–although better played.

      • Yes Addison says:

        Herr Doktor: To add to what you have said, while Levine’s myriad health problems were not within his control and one wanted to be sympathetic, he just was not up to being a music director of two major organizations at that point in his life. Even one was pushing it, as subsequent years at the Met (pre-scandal) demonstrated. He was cancelling so frequently, leaving the BSO scrambling for replacements, and it was straining the organization’s relations with its audience. Volpe and his board handled the resolution as well as it could have been handled, and the BSO is much better off today.

        Something veteran Levine watchers know is that he never would realize on his own that he was overcommitted and act accordingly. I think because in the ’70s and ’80s, he had seemingly limitless energy, he still thought he did, or that he would turn a corner and get it back. But his story from the late ’90s to the end in 2017 (I’ll assume for these purposes his conducting days are behind) was one of a progressive diminution.

      • Fliszt says:

        Levine treated the BSO members as lab-rats to play insufferable avant-guard works that he really couldn’t conduct- and he would berate the orchestra for what were actually his foibles. Certainly in the 1970’s Levine was the BSO’s favorite guest conductor, but by the time he took the helm in Boston, it was too late: he simply wasn’t up to the task.

        • Herr Doktor says:

          I can’t say that Levine’s conducting doomed the atonal and avant-garde works he conducted to such audience anguish. I think the works did a perfectly good job dooming themselves regardless of what Levine did or didn’t do (or anyone for that matter).

          Enough said – and I will NEVER listen to another one of these pieces again. Atonal music is nothing less than a perverted joke that fools no one except for certain holier-than-thou critics (that means you, ZW).

      • Roberto says:

        I couldn’t disagree more. Saying Levine was “whipping the orchestra” into shape was just a thing that people said. His extra rehearsal fund had more to do with his disastrous esoteric programming.
        I am 41 and the orchestra has been lost my entire adult life. Seiji was at least connected to the community and committed to Boston. They waited for Levine. Then his tenure was more or less a disaster. Now five years into Nelsons we are hard pressed to say what he is all about. He isn’t leaving much of an impression. Not to mention, like Levine, he is splitting his time with Leipzig.
        When did Boston become that kind of position? And why is it ok with all the donors that the status quo (really uninspiring and inert) is good enough?

        • fflambeau says:

          “…he is splitting his time with Leipzig.”

          There’s another way of looking at it (certainly not your way). That this kind of cultural transmission is good for both parties; for your information, Leipzig’s Gewandhaus orchestra came to Boston this year. I think Nelsons is ahead of the curve on this. In fact, these orchestral “alliances” are, in my opinion, the way to move forward. It has nothing to do with belittling the situation in Boston.

          • Saxon Broken says:

            Why are these orchestral alliances “the way forward”? What do you think they will deliver? My view is that taking two such large jobs either side of the Atlantic means neither is done particularly well. And there are many other who think that Nelsons is spreading himself too thinly (he is not the only one).

      • Amos says:

        It is extraordinary that for someone who spent 6 years with George Szell in Cleveland he took away virtually nothing regarding performing the core Central European repertoire. In interviews Levine was somewhat dismissive of Szell’s use of the piano to solve problems in symphonic scores claiming he focused on the voice!? Regardless he absorbed none of Szell’s performance vitality and it shows in his recordings with the CSO/Ravinia, PO, BPO and VPO which are numbingly boring.

    • Herr Doktor says:

      And to make one other comment…it’s probably hugely to Mark Volpe’s credit that everything seems to run so smoothly with the BSO. While I see him at concerts, I don’t know him and have never talked to him, nor do I know inside scuttlebutt on what goes on. But when so many things could go wrong but don’t, then one must give credit to the man at the top who makes that happen. If this is correct, thank you, Mr. Volpe, for running everything so well. The BSO appears to be a well-oiled machine that other organizations probably wish they could be. That doesn’t just happen by itself.

      • Robin Smith says:

        How is Andris getting on ? I meet many, many subscribers in Birmingham who regard his era with the CBSO as the greatest conductor/orchestra relationship they have witnessed in their lives. So many red letter days.

  • Costa Pilavachi says:

    This is the best and most prized job in the orchestral world- a great orchestra, solid vision and business foundations established 130 years ago, a wonderful city, summer in the Berkshires, a supportive and responsible board and one of the finest conductors anywhere. Mark Volpe did a stellar job over almost a quarter century, the organisation is stable and effective and in Tony Fogg the BSO has the best and most experienced artistic planner in America. The BSO will have the pick of the best talent out there and the Board has a year to choose the right person. I am sure they will choose well- they usually do. Good luck to all and special kudos to Mark for his dedication and unfailingly positive attitude.

    • John kelly says:

      If I may add one thing…..playing in one of the very best acoustics in the world……the sound in the center orchestra seats about 20 rows back from the stage is absolutely sensational. Karajan thought it better than Vienna………

    • JR says:

      Well put Mr. P ! I concur on all points!

  • David J Hyslop says:

    Have known Mark for many years and his roots are based here in Minnesota. He has had a great career and is a major talent. Bravo to him .

  • jay says:

    It is a great study in how to keep your job going for some 23 years. if memory serves when you mentioned Boston it was always noted as the home of the great Boston symphony we have now arrived the point where it is just another symphony orchestra.