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James Levine speaks; Cautiously approaching return to podium

Posted by Geoff Edgers  September 17, 2010 11:48 PM

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By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff

He has been spotted in New York City, leading an orchestra again after months on the sidelines. James Levine, attempting to make a comeback after major back surgery, says he feels good and is eager to start his seventh season as the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s music director.

But Levine is not making any promises about his health. And after scrambling in the past to replace the oft-injured Levine on short notice, the BSO says that this year it will be prepared if the 67-year-old conductor, who missed 60 percent of his scheduled concerts last season, is not able to lead the orchestra.

Both Levine and the BSO are hoping for the best, while trying to prepare for the worst. A mutual unease, if not yet a breach, now colors the relationship between the symphony and its superstar maestro.

The BSO has a list of highly regarded maestros on reserve for the 2010-11 season, which starts Oct. 2. And with advance ticket sales lagging and Levine without a signed contract, the orchestra’s management is not talking about the esteemed music director’s long-term future, only getting through the next few months.

Levine, in his first substantive comments since his April surgery regarding his recovery and future at the BSO, said Friday morning that he is conducting without the excruciating pain that sidelined him earlier this year.

“I frankly wish we were having this conversation after we do my first performance. Otherwise, it’s all speculative,” said Levine, who is preparing to open the Metropolitan Opera’s season with a new production of Wagner’s “Rheingold” on Sept. 27. “I had a huge surgery, and the purpose of the surgery was to take away pain that was making it really impossible to work without distraction. Now when I work, I have literally a whole body that doesn’t have a pain in it. It’s kind of like a miracle.”

Mark Volpe, the BSO’s managing director, saw Levine for the first time since June, leading a Met rehearsal last week. Volpe expressed optimism, but with the knowledge that Levine has had four extended absences for injury or illness in his first six seasons as BSO music director.

“He looked good considering what he’s been through,” said Volpe. “He hasn’t hit the full schedule yet, so I don’t want to be premature, but he seemed reasonably fit. I think where we are right now -- we have an understanding we’ve got to get into the fall. That’s something that needs to be part of what we need … to sort out.”

With his high-profile jobs as music director of both the Metropolitan Opera and BSO, Levine is the highest paid conductor in the country. He earns $1.7 million a year from the Met and just over $1.5 million from the BSO. Of the latter amount, Levine is paid “roughly less than a quarter’’ of his annual compensation for his administrative work, according to a BSO spokeswoman, with the rest in the form of concert fees, which he does not
receive if he does not conduct.

When Levine is healthy, he is considered a master communicator whose passion and musical acumen draw the best from his players. But his setbacks began in 2006, when, during a standing ovation at Symphony Hall, the maestro fell and tore his rotator cuff, leading to a four-month break. In 2008, he missed most of the Tanglewood season because of surgery to remove a kidney with a cancerous cyst. Then came surgery last fall for a herniated disc in his upper back. With the latest back surgery, which took
place in April, Levine was forced to miss 22 concerts, or 60 percent of his scheduled performances during the 2009-10 season, plus eight concerts at Tanglewood, the BSO’s summer home.

That left the BSO scrambling, at times drawing on less experienced conductors and at others bringing in replacements to carry out ambitious programs conceived by Levine. In recent months, some players and longtime subscribers have openly suggested it might be time for the BSO to start a search for a replacement.

On Friday, Levine said he agreed that the orchestra cannot continue to operate with such uncertainty. He wants to be in Boston as long as he can perform, but he understands that there are doubts.

“I have said to Mark, regular like a dinner bell, ‘I will resign tomorrow if you have someone you want to engage,’” said Levine. “If my presence is impeding you moving forward, I’ll get out of the way.”

Levine said he regrets having missed so much time. “Look, please understand, what we all went through in this business was no fun, probably least of all for me,” he said.

Violinist Malcolm Lowe, who leads the orchestra as concertmaster, said his attitude toward Levine hasn’t changed. The BSO is playing better than ever, he said, in large part because of its music director.

“Jimmy is probably the most optimistic person to a fault that I’ve encountered,” said Lowe. “It’s that level of music making and spirit that helps us overcome just about anything on the concert stage. The orchestra really longs for that, and I’m excited about having that experience again.”

“To get Jim back is something we’ve all been waiting for,” added trombonist Douglas Yeo. “I look forward to laying eyes on him myself, as does the whole Boston music community."

But for the first time, there is evidence that Levine’s absences are having an impact at the box office. Advance ticket sales for the season are about 10 percent behind what they were last year at this time, with patrons saying they’re concerned about Levine’s reliability, Volpe said. The BSO is also publicly questioning Levine’s ambitious schedule.

In particular, on Oct. 9, Levine plans to conduct a 155-minute performance of “Das Rheingold” at the Met, then fly to Boston and lead the BSO’s concert of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony.

“When we first found about it, we immediately said, ‘Is this wise, is this prudent, is this something you’ve thought through carefully?’” said Volpe.

That was followed by a letter from the BSO to Levine documenting the management's dismay with the schedule.

Levine, speaking Friday, sounded irritated by the issue. He noted that during his decades at the Met, he has regularly conducted a matinee and evening performance of an opera on the same day. (The BSO and Met, however, have no record of Levine ever conducting in two different cities in the same day.)

“Why, all of a sudden, something I’ve done countless times in my life has a red flag on it because I just had back surgery?” Levine said. “It goes without saying, I don’t have the faintest idea of how that day will be. If I’m the way I am now, it’ll be no problem. If I’m having a problem and I get the flu, it’ll be a whole other thing. All I’m saying is, I think
maybe when we get finished with this period I may sit down and talk about the one thing that dismays me, which is really a small thing."

Levine would not disclose what that thing is.

The conductor also addressed earlier reports about his decision not to sign the paperwork for a contract that was to have extended his tenure through 2012.

“The reason I don’t have a contract is nobody’s business at the moment,” he said. “It has nothing to do with my work. It has to do with an administrative discussion that is ongoing.”

As for his future in Boston, Levine said it will hinge not on paperwork but on what he experiences when he retakes the podium at Symphony Hall next month. This season, Levine is scheduled to conduct three Mahler symphonies, embark on a two-year cycle featuring the work of contemporary composer John Harbison, and mark Schumann’s birth with performances of Symphonies 2 and 3.

“It seems to me very simple,” said Levine. “If I conduct this season and at the end it’s apparent to the orchestra and everybody I’m in good shape and they look at the field and say, ‘Jim is really great for us, and everybody goes through a bad period,’ then fine. If that occurs, I will stay in the saddle in Boston.”

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com

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About Exhibitionist Geoff Edgers covers arts news for The Boston Globe..
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