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Critic's Notebook

Parsing the impact of another Levine leave

MICHAEL J. LUTCHConductor James Levine will miss at least three weeks of the BSO’s season due to back surgery. MICHAEL J. LUTCHConductor James Levine will miss at least three weeks of the BSO’s season due to back surgery. (Michael J. Lutch)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / October 2, 2009

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Yes, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s music director James Levine is on the disabled list again, facing a back operation that will keep him off the podium for at least three weeks and possibly more. What does it all mean for the BSO and its audiences?

In the short term, one of the BSO’s marquee projects for this year - a traversal of all nine Beethoven symphonies - is on the line. In the long term, the medical leave will add to the debate about whether Levine is in fact overextended in his two jobs leading both the BSO and the Metropolitan Opera.

In the best case scenario, if Levine actually returns within three weeks, his season at the BSO will proceed with minimal interruption. At the time of this writing on Wednesday, the Italian conductor Daniele Gatti is slated to replace Levine in the BSO’s opening night concert at Carnegie Hall, and the orchestra’s two fine assistant conductors - Shi-Yeon Sung and Julian Kuerti - are scheduled to share the conducting in tomorrow’s Symphony Hall program. After that, Levine had not been scheduled to conduct again in Boston until Oct. 22.

But if the recovery takes a bit longer, Levine could miss the entire Beethoven cycle he has planned over a concentrated 16-day period from Oct. 22 to Nov. 7. This would be a big disappointment and a real blow to the BSO’s season.

The Beethoven cycle had been billed as one of the season’s major events if not its capstone. From a programming perspective, I have been skeptical about the cycle from the start. At least on paper, it is simply not a fresh way of presenting repertory staples that are already ubiquitous on BSO and Tanglewood seasons. But I remained hopeful that the intensity and immediacy of the music-making under Levine’s baton - and the compression of all nine symphonies into such a short time span - would ultimately make the cycle feel worthwhile.

Levine was also convinced it could bring the orchestra itself to a new level through immersive work on a single core composer. The classical style was not a principal strength of Levine’s predecessor, Seiji Ozawa, and perhaps the BSO stands to gain from eating and breathing nothing but Beethoven with its own music director for nearly a month straight (including rehearsals). But in the end, if the cycle is handed over to a rotating cast of visiting maestros who happen to be free that week, the essential artistic raison d’être of the project will be lost.

And of course, the recent news will also bring renewed speculation about the bigger picture. This is Levine’s third extended medical leave since beginning with the BSO in 2004. At 66, he has proven he has the stamina to lead both institutions, but his grueling schedule clearly takes a toll. In addition to his full plate at the BSO this year, he is also scheduled to conduct Met performances of Puccini’s “Tosca’’ and Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffman’’ - both in new productions - as well as revivals of Strauss’s “Rosenkavalier,’’ Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra’’ and Berg’s “Lulu.’’

To be sure, leading opening nights at the Met, the BSO, and Carnegie Hall, as well as a Mozart/Stravinsky program all within an 11-day span would be arduous for a conductor half his age and in perfect health. But while the frequent medical leaves are unfortunate, it is impossible to say how his health would be affected if Levine had only one home instead of two. It’s also worth remembering that the commute between New York and Boston is nothing compared to his previous commute to his orchestral post in Munich.

Levine’s current contract at the Met ends in 2011 and one presumes he’ll use that juncture as a moment to ask some tough questions about what he wants to accomplish in the coming years. All the issues are linked, but ultimately, I think this comes down less to health questions than artistic ones. Is the current arrangement allowing him to realize his full potential in either city?

Clearly Boston would benefit from more of him, and the BSO needs all the intensity of vision and musical engagement he has to offer. In the meantime, one hopes he has a speedy recovery and returns both replenished and with some new ideas about how to lead the BSO into the future.

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

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