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Levine suffers another setback

More back pain ends his season

James Levine has had a history of health issues since becoming music director of the BSO in fall 2004. James Levine has had a history of health issues since becoming music director of the BSO in fall 2004. (Michele McDonald/Globe Staff/File)
By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / March 23, 2010

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James Levine, whose tenure as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra has been marked by health problems, will be out for the remainder of the BSO’s season due to his chronic back issues.

Levine has missed time in the past, but never as much as this season. In all, he will have been absent for 22 concerts, or 60 percent of his scheduled performances. Tickets can be exchanged for future concerts, the BSO said, its standard policy.

Over his six-year tenure, Levine has now missed 13 percent, or 30 of the 237 BSO concerts scheduled for Symphony Hall or Tanglewood. That does not include a spate of tour cancellations, including the five concerts he missed during the BSO’s national tour in 2006.

Levine, 66, underwent surgery for a herniated disc last fall, forcing him to forgo several months at the BSO and the Metropolitan Opera, where he also serves as music director. He returned to Symphony Hall in January, but was noticeably in pain. This latest episode will cost him the next three weeks, which were to be his final performances of the 2009-10 season.

On Friday, Levine called Mark Volpe, the BSO’s managing director, to tell him he could not conduct the remainder of the season.

“It’s not a total surprise,’’ said Volpe. “It’s been clear, especially in rehearsals, that he was experiencing pain and not comfortable.’’

Replacing Levine on the podium will be Jayce Ogren, a New England Conservatory graduate and former assistant conductor of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, for the BSO’s March 25, 26, and 27 world premiere of Peter Lieberson’s “Songs of Love and Sorrow.’’ Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos will conduct the BSO’s performances of Mendelssohn’s “Elijah’’ on April 1, 2, and 3 in Symphony Hall and April 5 in Carnegie Hall.

The BSO is still looking for a replacement for the third week without its director.

Levine did not respond to a request for comment. His manager, Ronald A. Wilford, said only that the pain has been “excruciating’’ and that the conductor will work with his doctors to come up with a treatment plan.

With his two high-profile jobs, Levine is the highest paid conductor in the country. His combined salary is $3.4 million a year, though he is not paid by the BSO if he doesn’t take the podium.

He has missed time over the years for a torn rotator cuff, cancer surgery, and more recently, his back.

When asked if there is any plan to deal with Levine’s health issues in coming seasons — his contract runs through 2012 — Volpe said he was more concerned with finding a replacement for the third week the conductor will miss. Discussion of the possible implications for this summer’s Tanglewood season is on hold.

“In terms of contingency plans, our hope is we’ll have a better sense of the course of action for Jimmy in the next few weeks,’’ Volpe said.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.