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The opening movement

After five seasons, it's Levine's BSO: calmed down and charged up

James Levine, rehearsing a Mozart symphony last week with the BSO, has renovated the ensemble's sound and broadened its repertoire, making it very much his own orchestra. James Levine, rehearsing a Mozart symphony last week with the BSO, has renovated the ensemble's sound and broadened its repertoire, making it very much his own orchestra. (Photos by Michele McDonald/Globe Staff)
By Jeremy A. Eichler
Globe Staff / February 22, 2009
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In the fall of 2004, James Levine arrived in town with much fanfare to take up the helm of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Last night was his final scheduled performance with the orchestra in Symphony Hall for the season. This much-heralded partnership between eminent American conductor and major American orchestra has now reached the mile-marker of five seasons and Levine's initial contract has recently been extended until 2012, making it a ripe moment to reflect on a basic question: How is it going?

Overall, the sonic flourishing of the orchestra under Levine's baton is unmistakable. Big ensembles are not wholly transformed in five years, nor can any longstanding symphonic legacy be erected so quickly. But Levine and the BSO have grown toward each other, and this venerable ensemble whose reputation and general morale had declined under the long tenure of Seiji Ozawa, is clearly changing for the better.

To be sure, there have been growing pains, medical setbacks, and curiously shifting winds in programming. Levine has lavished attention on a certain set of American composers, and left many emerging and prominent contemporary voices for others to champion. Some orchestral players have privately complained about workload and rehearsal style, and you can find discerning listeners who are still waiting for a more complete transformation.

But in the meantime, as a batch of recordings released last week documents, the orchestra has been playing with real clarity, depth of tone, and expressive range. You can hear it in the warm and luminous account of Brahms's "German Requiem" and in the smoldering intensity and razor-sharp definition brought to Mahler's Sixth Symphony, both recorded live in performances from earlier this season. Levine has big ambitions for his tenure in Boston; and the orchestra is responding.

Before returning to New York this week, Levine, who is also the music director of the Metropolitan Opera, took some time to look back on his first five seasons and look ahead to his programs for next year and beyond. Spinning out long spiraling sentences, he spoke with palpable enthusiasm about his time thus far in Boston. His mood was clearly upbeat, if also tempered by an awareness of the work that still needs to be done.

"I'm very, very happy with the orchestra," he said, "and I'm happy with the hall, and happy with the audience, and happy with the intelligence and vitality of the community and the way it supports the orchestra. But I think the evolution of symphony orchestras is in a state where we are all trying to maintain an ever-larger repertoire and solve ever-new problems."

Bold overture
When Levine began in 2004 he seemed to come charging out of the gates. Concerts were lengthy and challenging, and often daringly packed with music of the early-, mid-, or late-20th century. Some listeners were turned off by the programming and made their complaints heard, though many others were positively jubilant. At the time I was living in New York and you could feel the buzz emanating from Boston onto the national scene. It seemed quite possible that something distinct in the history of American orchestras was going on, in the way that Levine was stretching a tradition-rich ensemble and coaxing an audience to come along as they expanded the boundaries of the orchestral canon.

But after the third season, the programs began to tilt in the other direction. There were still new commissions but there was a drastic drop in the music from various 20th-century masters that collectively link the world of Brahms with the fractured sonic landscape of today. In its stead came big classical projects such as Levine's survey of Mozart symphonies that concluded just last night in Symphony Hall, and next season will likewise bring a tour of the Beethoven symphonies. The sudden reorientation left some listeners, myself included, scratching their heads. What happened to Levine's grand adventure in visionary programming?

"When I did the first season or two, I tried to cast the net very wide and very full," he explained. "I wanted to see what the result would be from starting with a large array rather than starting very cautiously with my little toe in the water. I was very glad I did it that way."

Levine said he loved what he called his early "banquet-sized" programs, but he also concluded at the time that they were just too long for both the orchestra and the audience. And most importantly, he realized there was rarely enough time to prepare them as thoroughly as he wanted. "I thought in the first two seasons we simply played too many Thursday night performances that were like dress rehearsals," he said. Having to scramble in order to pull programs together properly was not the right approach for conductor or orchestra. Something had to change.

Less Ligeti, more Mozart

As conductors go, Levine is known to be a remarkable orchestral builder. Over more than three decades he has turned the Met Orchestra into one of the finest ensembles in the country. After his first seasons with the BSO, he concluded that the ensemble would benefit more from a sustained re-immersion in the core classical and early Romantic repertoire: Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert. This literature after all contains the symphonic master grid - the fundamentals of orchestral communication on which everything else rests. For Levine it is also, first and foremost, "great music" - his highest term of praise - that he was delighted to be returning to with the orchestra.

Of course, the BSO already knows this repertoire well (though it was not considered one of Ozawa's dominant interpretive strengths). Levine felt there was still much to be gained from the renewed attention to style and the clear projection of the music's inner contents. "The health of a symphony orchestra depends on not losing touch with the values and the issues [that arise when] playing this music," he said. It is a repertoire, Levine argued, that is rarely performed well by American orchestras these days because it is so often taken for granted and seldom rehearsed in real depth.

With all of this in mind, Levine is planning a straight cycle of the Beethoven symphonies for next year. At first blush, orchestra building aside, this seems like the ultimate in conventional programming, the kind of project that ensembles around the country turn to when they have run out of creative ideas for engaging the music of the past. Do conductor and orchestra really have anything new to say with this music?

On this topic Levine is passionate. It will be both the first complete Beethoven cycle he has ever led, and rather surprisingly, the first the orchestra has played within a single season. What's more, the survey will be completed across four programs packed into just over two weeks, making for a concentrated immersion that he argued will greatly benefit the orchestra and, he hopes, energize the audience. "I'm very excited about it," he said. "Because the orchestra already knows the notes, the minute we start rehearsing [the symphonies] we're working on the style and guts of them, and on relating one to the other. It will be a month very well-spent." In a phone interview, concertmaster Malcolm Lowe agreed: "I think it will pay wonderful dividends to the orchestra in everything we play going forward," he said.

Where exactly the orchestra goes with its renovated sound in the following seasons is an open question. Levine keeps a little blue notebook with programming ideas stretching until 2014. Future years, he said, will showcase a fuller array of what the orchestra can do. And as he discussed his long-term vision, it became clear that the spirit of adventure and risk-taking that infused the programming of the first two seasons may not have disappeared for good.

Musical channels

When one considers how many sides of Levine's musical interests are expressed in New York, it's hard to avoid the thought that Boston is somehow not getting enough of him. In New York, Levine conducts the Met orchestra in both opera and symphonic repertoire, but he also directs the Met Chamber Ensemble, devising programs for small groups of players that elegantly vault across centuries, from Mozart to Boulez. These programs, performed in the two chamber venues at Carnegie Hall, have long been bright spots on the crowded New York concert scene.

Here in Boston Levine must funnel all of his enthusiasms into the Symphony Hall subscription season, with its rigid structure and limited rehearsal schedule. One remedy seems clear. The BSO should augment its existing Chamber Players series with a special number of small-ensemble programs that Levine would curate and conduct with players from the orchestra, on the model of the Met Chamber Ensemble. It would be an ideal way to engage his creativity outside of Symphony Hall and could greatly enrich the city's musical life.

"I would love to do that here," he replied when the idea was posed to him. "I had thought of approaching it when I could see a way of getting into it." He imagined the series could even play off of the BSO programs by amplifying certain themes or drawing strong contrasts. When the topic was revisited in an interview a few days later, Levine had already brainstormed three prototype programs in his little blue book, mixing old and new music in exhilarating ways. The seasoned conductor had become, in his own phrase, the kid in the candy shop.

Over his first five years with the BSO itself, Levine has maintained his keen interest in championing certain living composers. When he has advocated for those of the spiky modernist variety - Charles Wuorinen, Milton Babbitt, and Elliott Carter - the music has at times seemed a hard sell with audiences. But the sheer force of Levine's commitment to Carter's music in particular has been producing results, with an all-Carter Tanglewood festival drawing an audience much larger than anyone could have predicted. "One thing is clear," Levine said, "if those of us who love this music don't play it, it will die, because it won't win a popularity contest on that level."

True enough, and you have to admire the strength of Levine's faith in these composers as well as his ability to project their scores clearly for a symphony audience. But precisely because Levine's advocacy means repeat visits to the same handful of composers, on the weeks when he is not on the podium, the orchestra can and should be doing more to bring a wider variety of the music of today before the public.

Growing toward each other

After working with Ozawa for nearly three decades, the orchestra inevitably took time to build its rapport with Levine. Some musicians have complained privately about the physical demands of the programs and how much Levine has relied on verbal instruction in rehearsals as opposed to letting the musicians do more playing through the material. To the charge of over-talking, Levine responded recently that he saw no other way to help the orchestra initially learn what he was looking for.

When it came to gestures on the podium, Levine also began his tenure with the ideal of showing the smallest beat possible so that the musicians would listen more closely to each other. But in an orchestra so long accustomed to the balletic and physically demonstrative Ozawa, the small beat became a source of real frustration for some. Fast forward a few seasons, and these days Levine swivels fervidly in his chair and conducts with big swooping gestures. The radical change, he said, "was a result of them coming to me and me coming to them."

For his part, Lowe, the concertmaster, echoed Levine's assessment of some of the early challenges. "There were definitely times that there was an overwhelmed feeling and not one of being totally prepared for the large programs and some of the [musical] language difference," he said. And now? "I think the orchestra sounds absolutely wonderful. And when guest conductors come, I find that we're capable of doing just about anything that just about anybody asks us to do at this point, and that's really satisfying and very encouraging."

Eighteen new players have joined the orchestra since Levine was named music director designate in 2001, and several have retired. With its renovated sound, its broadening repertoire, and its possession of enough Carter under its fingers to take over a whole concert in last summer's Festival of Contemporary Music, the BSO is now very much Levine's orchestra. It will be fascinating to see where this partnership goes in the next few years, and whether Levine is able to weave together the various threads of the first five seasons in bold new ways. The conductor meanwhile spoke openly about his high hopes for the next chapter with the orchestra.

"All I want is for it to continue being better and better," he said. "I want every aspect of it to keep growing in as profound and creative and exciting directions as I and [the orchestra] can imagine. When we started the work, I had the feeling that there was them and there was me. Somewhere in the third season, I felt we were we. I remember that distinctly. It was just somehow that feeling that I could tell they respected and understood where I was trying to go, and I respected and understood who they are. I love that orchestra - it has something unique which it is my passion and my responsibility to keep developing. Everything in performing arts gets better or gets worse; it doesn't just stay on it own. Making sure it keeps getting better is the most challenging and the most exhilarating work."

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

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