Boston's baton passes to versatile Levine

James Levine is bringing his orchestra-building talents to the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), replacing Seiji Ozawa, who has wielded the baton there for 29 years.

Levine, longtime leader of New York's Metropolitan Opera orchestra, has turned that ensemble into one that is often considered to be playing better than the New York Philharmonic.

The BSO announced Oct. 28 that Levine would become the 121-year-old orchestra's first American-born music director. Confirming rumors circulating since last summer, Levine will take over gradually from Ozawa, who will become music director of the Vienna State Opera. Levine starts as music director designate in September 2002, and becomes full director in 2004. He will also retain his responsibilities at the Met.

Levine is known as a steady, nurturing presence with musicians, a conductor who creates a constructive, collaborative atmosphere that wins friends. For instance, soprano Teresa Stratas says Levine was one of the "three most important influences in my life: The other two are my mom and Mother Teresa."

Such loyalties temper criticism of Levine's omnipresent style: He has conducted more than 50 Met performances per season. In the 1980s, he often led twice as many. He still regularly does two operas in a single day, which longtime Met subscriber Harold Rolfe calls "a strange form of showing off."

So much Levine leaves little room for other talented conductors as guests. Some great opera conductors such as Colin Davis and Antonio Pappano, whose BSO debut this spring was termed "sensationally successful" by The Boston Globe, rarely if ever appear at the Met.

The BSO will also temper Levine's taste for pop and crossover material.

He recently led a series of weak concerts for the "three tenors," disappointing some of their fans but pocketing $500,000 per night for himself. He conducted the soundtrack for Walt Disney's "Fantasia 2000," including a montage of works by Elgar that enraged the music critic of Britain's The Guardian newspaper: "The Elgar has been garishly tarted up: Four of the marches have been laced together and gratuitous orchestral decoration added, including a wordless chorus for a final reprise of 'Land of Hope and Glory' to ensure the full emetic effect."

Since Boston already has its own well-established Pops orchestra, led by handsome young Keith Lockhart, Levine is not likely to jump into the Pops arena anytime soon. In his book, "Dialogues & Discoveries: James Levine, His Life and His Music" (Scribner), Robert Marsh calls Levine "a finer, more complete conductor than Toscanini ... Levine has a vastly larger repertory than Toscanini ever offered, and a more complete mastery of musical styles."

But the European press generally disagrees, including the British critic who found Levine's Mozart hamhanded: "brazenly conservative ... the kind of interpretative anachronism one thought had collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity years ago."

In a friendlier atmosphere on America's East Coast, Levine can nurture the BSO in the way he has the Met orchestra in concert appearances, says James Jorden, publisher of "Parterre Box," a website on opera (, and a veteran Levine watcher.

"From the Met orchestra's concert appearances," Mr. Jorden observes, "I would expect that Levine will choose to program a very wide variety of repertoire in Boston, with some emphasis on large-scale romantic and late-romantic works. He also is very fond of opera in concert with lavish 'dream' casts."

In standard repertory at the Met, Jordan says, Levine has sometimes lacked "any particular flair for shedding new light." But he offers a "superb technical mastery of the orchestra as instrument and the ability to groom his players into the best possible ensemble," even if some Boston listeners "might be disappointed by Levine's increasingly cerebral approach to his music."

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