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Sam Allis | The Observer

Making music

James Levine aims to make himself obsolete

Email|Print| Text size + By Sam Allis
Globe Columnist / November 18, 2007

When he conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra, James Levine resides far on the audience right side of his chair. The tip of his left foot gains purchase on the rung below, while his right leg extends straight to the floor to the right of his perch. He can approach, from a certain angle, the illusion of riding sidesaddle.

The audience sees the black of his coat and a nimbus of mad hair. His movements are modest, and only those in the balconies close to the stage can witness his emotional connection to a piece. His face, a hot crimson, was roiled with anguish through Gustav Mahler's staggering, elegiac Ninth Symphony when he recently conducted it.

Levine's goal is to make himself, to use his own word, obsolete.

"I've gotten closer and closer to that with orchestras I've worked with for years, like the Met," he said last week about the Metropolitan Opera, which he has led as music director for 36 years. "Little by little, I'll have that feeling here too. To me, conducting has only a certain amount to do with gesture.

"What I want to hear is an orchestra that functions like a huge chamber orchestra, to communicate the conception directly to the audience," he continues. "If the conductor has to control everything gesturally, the audience looks more than it listens."

Levine, 64, is an intellectual omnivore. His eyes glitter with intelligence and humor. Music is 99 percent of his life, but a conversation with him is a runaway horse. It may veer to a letter of Verdi he acquired or his treasured collection of dinosaur bones that have been marbled with subtle color over the millennia and become beautiful things.

The Observer ranks all people based on the quality of their companionship on a ride to the Berkshires, and I'm guessing he's a solid A.

Now in his fourth year as musical director of the BSO, Levine's tenure has been lauded as a breath of fresh air. The BSO has never sounded better. He has also created a firestorm over his determination to play difficult new music and challenging programs.

No one is neutral about this guy. Lionized and criticized, Levine is the great articulator of what he's trying to do. His essay in each program book explaining that week's programming is clear and well written. You at least know the rationale behind his choices.

For all the heat, Levine's diplomacy during rehearsals is striking. While practicing the new work of Elliot Carter, commissioned by the BSO, that was first performed last Thursday night, he softly prefaced his requests for change with the likes of, "Could you do me a favor?"

Many compare Carter's modern music unfavorably to the melody of fingernails on a blackboard. This may be part of the reason some 1,900 season subscribers have canceled their subscriptions since his arrival. (Single tickets sales have largely made up the difference.) Yet countless others applaud Levine's penchant for risk.

He maintains his programming is merely consistent with the BSO's tradition of playing new music, and cites BSO conductor Serge Koussevitzky's decision to play Aaron Copland's work when the composer was in his mid-20s.

There's a conundrum here: Is it reasonable to expect an audience lacking a foundation in 20th-century music - that would be most of us - to grasp and appreciate the weirdness of Carter? If not, does that then mean Levine should never play Carter? That can't be right either.

Levine accepts the collateral damage from his programming, and finds that most of a BSO audience transcend Carter and Milton Babbitt haters. Young people in particular, he says, gravitate to the new music.

"Since time immemorial, this issue has not materially changed," he says. "There were arguments back when the BSO first played Brahms of all things that are inconceivable now."

All agree that contemporary music suffers from a single hearing. "If you really hate just everything about a piece, don't go near it again," he says. "But if there's one thing that makes you wonder, go hear it again."

Great idea, but it's asking a lot of someone who abhorred most of a piece on first hearing to volunteer for more root canal work. The issue is moot because Levine's commitment to new music, accessible or not, is in his DNA, and he's not going to change.

"If I responded by not playing the music that is of our time and very great music, I would feel I wasn't meeting my responsibility, not staying with my conviction. The minute I play for an audience something that some person wants me to play, there's no way down that road."

In Boston, he says, "The argument about what is liked or not is very passionate and healthy. It's a very artistically committed and engaged situation. Whenever I'm talking music with people here, they're full-scale enthusiasts, fully engaged. You don't find that in New York."

I've ground my teeth to powder over the years from the likes of Carter and Schoenberg. Still, I get where Levine is headed and I'm with him. It's time to live dangerously. His great challenge remains to find a way to introduce difficult new music to an audience without giving it the bends.

Sam Allis's e-mail address is: allis@globe.com

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