Boston takes the measure of its maestro

When James Levine officially took over in October as the new music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, his arrival was heralded from taxicab roofs to lampposts to newspaper columns. There was also much speculation among music professionals as to Mr. Levine's ability to mesh his BSO responsibilities with those at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he holds the title of music director.

The arguable highlight of Levine's second wave of appearances with the orchestra in Boston is this weekend's concert version of Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman," and it seems a propitious moment to look at the changes he's already effected within the orchestra.

Levine succeeds Seiji Ozawa, who held the post for 29 seasons and has moved to Vienna to become music director of the Vienna State Opera. Meanwhile, Levine retains his relationship with the Metropolitan Opera, where he has shaped the orchestra into one of the world's best during his 30 years at the helm.

The maestro has divided his BSO season into two principal residencies rather than dropping in throughout the season. He is currently in his second block - four weeks this time - and it is already clear, according to Richard Dyer, music critic of the Boston Globe, that Levine is making a difference.

"There are a lot of very distinguished musical figures here [in Boston] who didn't make it a habit of going to Seiji Ozawa's concerts, but they do go to [Levine's]," Mr. Dyer says. "Correspondingly, at the other end of the spectrum the kids are back."

Why should this be the case? There has never been anything splashy about Levine's podium manner - in fact that manner has become increasingly minimalist over the years, and these days he sits to conduct. His strength, apart from an insatiable musical curiosity, has always been in finding ways to fuse all aspects of the performance at hand into an integrated musical whole, and sharing that whole with the public.

In this sense, Levine presents a stark contrast to Mr. Ozawa, whose strengths lay in his dazzling presence, as well as his flair with large-scale works and his virtually unfailing ability to lead the orchestra through the most complex compositions with clarity and precision. That said, Ozawa's vital legacy to the BSO was his ability to draw major donors - the BSO now has one of the largest and most envied endowments among US orchestras.

Clearly, Levine's programs are sparking all this interest. They are long; they are challenging. He is striving to create concerts that are at once provocative to the musically trained, yet not off-putting to the more casual concertgoer. He is programming pieces the public will recognize, along with a lot of 20th-century music - American and otherwise.

"I would say in some respects this is the most adventurously programmed orchestra in the country now," Dyer says.

Behind the scenes, Levine is taking a detailed interest in all functions of the BSO. He is in the process of revamping the way the orchestra rehearses. Many of the 20th-century pieces require much more rehearsal time than is typically available. Levine's solution, one he first put into practice at the Met, is to start rehearsing certain pieces months, perhaps even a season, in advance, as he did with Elliott Carter's "Symphonia," performed in October, which he actually began preparing during a guest conducting stint last season.

This took some major negotiating, because Levine demanded flexibility in scheduling rehearsals, something musicians are usually loath to consider.

But clearly the players wanted some sort of provocative change.

"All of them originally got into this business because they wanted to be at the top of the heap, and they've spent a long time not being there, and I think there's still an attitude of eagerness," Dyer says. "Last year was the first year I can remember that there were no retirements because everybody wanted to stay for at least one season under the new music director."

"It says something that the musicians were willing to make those changes because they wanted him," says Henry Fogel, president and CEO of the American Symphony Orchestra League and former president of the Chicago Symphony. "There's nobody else they would have done that for." And for Mr. Fogel, whose job is to observe realities and spot trends in the world of symphony orchestras, there is another benefit.

"We need to find more flexible ways of dealing with our orchestra contracts ... and here, Levine, with his demands when they wanted him for that job, actually may have led into new thinking," he says.

Can Levine bring this orchestra back to its former role as testing ground for the new and a beacon for the intelligentsia of Boston and beyond, the way it was in the fabled era of Serge Koussevitzky, who directed the orchestra from 1924 to 1949?

As Fogel explains it, "In the modern American city, you can't avoid the element of marketing," which includes tapping into a conductor's celebrity status. "But I also think that the talent [had] better be there. Now when you say San Francisco, more people go, 'Oh, isn't that where Michael Tilson Thomas is?' I think it has raised the level of visibility and stature of the San Francisco Symphony.

"I do think that's likely to happen [in Boston]: Levine has the musical talent and, at the core, the musical 'goods.' Add the fact that orchestras play really well for him, not just technically well but as if they really are committed to the music that they're playing ... and with that combination, I think it's likely to happen."

Fogel is an optimist on the Levine/BSO marriage. Boston is in an enviable position, he says, because it has such a solid financial position that it can afford to make bold choices. "It can explore these things - but it can explore them without a sense of panic, without a sense of crisis, which is the best time to explore them," says Fogel.

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