Artistic leadership in Boston moves to a new generation

Boston's physical landscape is being reshaped with its multibillion-dollar "Big Dig" highway project. Now, three of the city's leading performing- arts organizations are about to change the city's cultural landscape as well by handing their reins to new leaders.

The American Repertory Theatre (ART, actually in Cambridge, Mass., across the Charles River from the city), the Boston Ballet, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) are all starting the 21st century by transferring their artistic leadership to the next generation.

The ART and the Boston Ballet have announced their choices, but the BSO is still seeking a successor to its longtime music director, Seiji Ozawa, who is leaving next spring.

The Boston Ballet thought it made its choice a year ago when it hired Maina Gielgud, a former international ballerina (and niece of British actor Sir John Gielgud) who had served as director of the Australian Ballet from 1983 to 1990. The match appeared promising. With charisma to spare, and wide connections in the international dance world, Ms. Gielgud set to work on a half-time contract as artistic director-designate, slated to take over fully in July 2001. But by last February she had resigned, issuing a joint statement with the company that there was "a mismatch of expectations."

The ballet was thrown into turmoil, fueled by revelations of an increasing deficit. Without a director in place, the ballet's board of trustees acted swiftly to turn day-to-day responsibilities for the next season over to its staff of ballet masters and the musical director. It also began a fundraising campaign to cover the deficit, and started a second search.

Earlier this month, the trustees tapped Mikko Nissinen, the Finnish-born former principal dancer of the San Francisco Ballet and current artistic director of the Alberta Ballet in Canada. He starts part-time in Boston this month, commuting between his new job and his old one, until he settles in next July.

The ART faced a challenge that differs from that of the Boston Ballet, which has had three directors since its founder, E.V. Williams, retired in 1983.

Robert Brustein, who had started the ART and brought it from Yale University to Harvard University in 1980, was ready to retire, but no one expected such a formidable presence in Boston's (and the nation's) arts scene to fade away without playing a hand in choosing his successor. Mr. Brustein sat on a three-man search committee composed Neil Rudenstine, the outgoing Harvard president; Jeremy Knowles, dean of the faculty; and himself.

Their choice, announced in June, was Robert Woodruff, a Brustein protégé. The naming of Mr. Woodruff did not come without controversy. A professor at Columbia University's School of the Arts, Woodruff is one of the most viscerally experimental directors in contemporary theater. He had recently staged an ART production of "Richard II" that featured the English monarch cross-dressed as Queen Elizabeth and surrounded by a court of young men - strong stuff, even for a worldly Cambridge theater audience.

However, the appointment is evidence that the cutting-edge, risk-taking form of theater that Brustein has fostered will continue at ART.

The BSO, now in its 121st season, is a larger organization in size and budget than either the ballet or the ART. The orchestra also owns its own performance space - the world-renowned Symphony Hall, a Boston landmark.

The new music director will be stepping into the shoes of Mr. Ozawa, who has guided the orchestra since 1973. His successor will inherit the many responsibilities of managing an extensive Symphony Hall season; a wide-ranging touring schedule; a relationship with the Boston Pops; oversight of the orchestra's summer home at Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass.; and the BSO's education programs.

Even though Ozawa announced three years ago that he would leave the BSO at the end of the 2001-02, the search for a new director continues. The name most often mentioned is James Levine, artistic director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Mr. Levine will serve as a BSO guest conductor for one of its programs in February.

With Ozawa leading his final concerts at Symphony Hall April 18 to 20, there would seem to be not a moment to lose in the passing of the baton.

Nissinen, Woodruff, and the new BSO director, along with leaders of Boston's other arts institutions, must blend tradition and innovation in "the Athens of America," as Boston has been called for more than a century.

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