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How do you know…
3 Mar 2011
Inside the Classics

…when enough is enough? For the Boston Symphony and James Levine, stepping out of scheduled performances of a highly-anticipated Mahler 9 was the back-breaking straw; Levine will officially step down from his music director position on September 1.

For most of us Levine’s departure was not so much about “if” but about “when”; for the last several years a slew of physical woes, from back surgery to a kidney tumor, have kept him off the BSO podium for long swatches of time. More damaging, many of these cancellations were last-minute, forcing orchestra management to scramble for replacement conductors (as Sam discussed yesterday), which is terribly unfair for an audience expecting Levine at the helm, of course, but even more unfair for the players who have to adjust to a new conductor (and thus a new interpretation) on the spot, during a concert.

But for me the question was not so much his health (although it clearly affected his ability to keep his schedule); the concern more was to his commitment to both the BSO and to Boston itself. Leading two major musical institutions (the Met and the BSO), no matter how (relatively) geographically close, is a gargantuan task, and one always wondered whether Levine could truly give equal time and energy to both institutions. After all, his affiliation with the Met spans decades, and in his heart he is an opera conductor (I’m not saying that his symphonic performances aren’t also exquisite – it’s more a question of which milieu is really “home” for him). To me it seems his brief BSO tenure was a not entirely successful experiment, and one that perhaps should not be undertaken given that the superhuman feats of scheduling that might be possible in ones 40′s and 50′s are not necessarily viable when approaching 70 (here’s hoping that Muti and Chicago are not another cautionary tale).

I had the pleasure of acting as assistant to Levine at the Verbier Festival a decade ago, quite soon after graduating from Curtis. His attention to detail and his ability to parse the smallest musical phrase, all the while maintaining a sharply-focused broader picture, has equal in very few, if any. He was also an extraordinary teacher, and the Verbier Orchestra (all under the age of 30) played exquisitely for him.

And now, a completely different thought, going back to the title of my post.

How do you know…why New York critics (and audiences, it seems) didn’t wax rhapsodic about the Beethoven concerto (and, again, I’m referencing a topic brought up in Sam’s previous post – sorry, buddy, not trying to ride on your coattails, but you just got me thinking!).

I caught a little bit of the rehearsal last week before a meeting, and I found Batiashvili’s technique breathtaking and her tone gorgeous. From a musical standpoint, although I appreciated her very particular perspective, I could (from the 30 minutes I listened) appreciate how one might find her approach verging on static.

And here’s where I’m going say something that might not sit well with our home crowd, so bear with me. While the Minnesota Orchestra sees it’s share of world-class soloists over the course of a season, it pales in comparison to what the average New Yorker could experience in the span of, say, a month. In a smaller market, there’s a smaller basis of comparison.

I would venture to say that this is the same for the Orchestra. The number of soloists (or performances) that an average Minnesota Orchestra member is able to hear in a given season is limited to whoever is playing with the Orchestra, or whoever might be in town doing a recital on a night when the Orchestra isn’t working (good luck trying to find that coincidence!). When you’re working a full orchestra season, your chances of hearing soloists not playing with you – or for hearing other orchestras – is not terribly high.

And this probably gives orchestral musicians a more limited view of their own industry than you would expect, and it really is by brunt of schedule. Sure, you can listen to recordings, but that’s not really the same.

It’s a bit better for conductors – of course you hear the orchestras you’re guest conducting. But more than that, I usually try to catch a performance of any orchestra I’m working with, and as I’m usually doing a Pops show or a special presentation, I often have the chance to catch a subscription concert in the same week – in the last 12 months I’ve heard Chicago, San Francisco and Philadelphia live, among others. And hearing other orchestras (and soloists) live and on a regular basis informs my own perspective.

Because in the end, it’s all a matter of perspective, of course. Our appreciation of music is subjective, and we each experience it in very individual ways – which is why our individual reactions may vary so much.

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