So it’s official: James Levine is stepping down as the Boston Symphony’s music director. He’ll stay on through this summer’s Tanglewood season. The Boston Globe’s story is here; the NYT’s
story ArtsBeat blog entry is here, and Seated Ovation has an appreciation here. [UPDATE: a general assessment of Levine’s tenure by the Globe‘s Jeremy Eichler here; Boston Musical Intelligencer here; NYT’s main story by Daniel Wakin here; another general assessment by the NYT’s Anthony Tommasini here.]
I’m saddened by this; when we lived in Boston I was a member of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (the choir of the BSO), and we went to many BSO concerts. (Some of those concerts were among our first dates.)
I remember one moment when Levine and the BSO performed Berlioz’ Les Troyens at Tanglewood in 2008: right before the final chorus he clenched his left fist and gave us a fiery glance, and we let loose an almost animal-like roar as we Carthaginians vowed eternal enmity on the Romans. Afterward he came out to us as we were walking off stage, nodding in satisfaction and saying, “That final chorus…wow.”
I also remember a wonderfully lucid yet powerful Mahler 9 where Levine, clearly delighted with the orchestra, went to the back stands of the violins and had them stand up one by one as he walked forward to acknowledge the applause.
But perhaps my fondest memory…
…is Berlioz’ La Damnation de Faust. Levine was recovering from a shoulder injury that had apparently forced him to keep his gestures minimal–some said they were hard to follow–but here he waved his arms about and swung around in his trademark chair. At the end of Part III, a mad dash, he kept us on a tight leash while whipping up enormous excitement; at one point the chorus breaks out in maniacal laughter, and that’s exactly what he got, without changing that continually circling right hand, steadily giving out the pulse that propelled the music forward without histrionics.
In performance Levine is unflappable; in a Fidelio concert performance in 2007, in the ensemble number that follows the Prisoner’s Chorus and ends Act I, he had to deal with a Second Prisoner who kept rushing and a Rocco who kept swallowing a repeated phrase (must have been nerves), and had no trouble changing his gestures to ensure that the ensemble stayed together. In rehearsal he gets what he wants without lecturing or berating the musicians. One can be forgiven for thinking that it’s all a bit too professional; no flowery metaphors or verbal rhapsodizing that’s supposed to tell them what the music means. And maybe the sort of spiritual depths some find in other conductors (particularly of earlier generations) weren’t always evident.
I’ve heard some say that Levine brings generalized excitement rather than real insight to his interpretations. Perhaps; I haven’t really thought the issue through. Still, I’ll remember many wonderful nights at Symphony Hall and Tanglewood, both from the audience and onstage. Soon we’ll join the breathless, baseless speculation on what comes next for the BSO, but for now, this is just a note of thanks.