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Globe Editorial

For BSO, conductor’s absence creates awkward dynamics

July 18, 2010

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JAMES LEVINE has served the Boston Symphony Orchestra honorably, and deserves to continue as music director if his health bounces back quickly. If he’s not able to return to full strength in a reasonable time, he should resign and allow the orchestra to search openly for a replacement.

Levine’s absence is being felt at Tanglewood, where orchestra denizens decamp for the summer. The New Yorker recently reported that the conductor’s disabling back surgery means that “the supreme music festival of the summer has lost a little of its regal lustre.’’

Those words may rankle BSO lovers from Symphony Hall to Lenox, but the orchestra seems to be making the best of a plainly bad situation. This summer’s roster of guest conductors, starting with Michael Tilson Thomas of the San Francisco Symphony, could serve as a recruitment service for Levine’s replacement. Or the BSO could follow the lead of orchestras in Los Angeles and Philadelphia and look for a music-director prodigy to take it in a dynamic direction.

The situation would be simpler if Levine were either deficient or supremely popular. He is neither. An eminent musician, he has brought critical respect to the BSO through his innovative programming, even if his emphasis on lesser-known pieces alienated some symphony subscribers. He’s hardly the only major conductor to hold down two demanding jobs, but his sharing arrangement with New York’s Metropolitan Opera tugs at Boston’s sense of identity. If would be far easier for Bostonians to rise to his defense if he actually lived here.

Levine’s failing is his physical frailty. At 67, he’s at an age when most conductors are still in their prime. But he’s a large man with tremors in his legs that make it difficult for him to stand during performances. A fall on the stage at Symphony Hall cut short his 2006 season. Surgery for a kidney malignancy in 2008 cost him most of the Tanglewood season. And back surgery last September has wiped out everything since then. It’s an open question whether he will ever again be strong enough to handle both a full BSO season and his Metropolitan Opera duties.

That’s why BSO leaders are justified in proceeding with one eye on a post-Levine future. If he can come back strong, the orchestra will be in fine shape. If not, its board should act quickly to avoid a deeper limbo.

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