The Elusive Maestro

Why the process of finding a new conductor makes music lovers weep.

James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra 

When the Boston Symphony announced in 2001 that James Levine would be taking over the orchestra in 2004, there was a mighty outpouring of “hmmmm” from the Boston musical public. Levine was good, no question, but he was mainly an opera conductor, churning it out at the Met night after night. And he planned on keeping his job in New York. On the other hand, at least Boston’s long musical doldrum under Seiji Ozawa was nearing its end after three decades of music-making more forgettable than otherwise. The stories of Levine and Ozawa form a parable of orchestras and their maestros, a parable about to be rehearsed again.

When Levine finally mounted the podium in Symphony Hall for his debut as music director, Boston discovered that he was so bulbous and physically messed up that he sat hunched over with one cheek planted awkwardly on a stool, only occasionally looked up from the score, and barely moved his arms. Yet from his debut with the epic Mahler Eighth, Levine proceeded to give performances that were not just superb; they were sometimes staggering.

Levine performed more contemporary music than any Boston conductor since Serge Koussevitsky.He got away with it because he was so damn good. And he was old-fashioned good, unsullied by trends—such as the early-music virus that infects conductors with the delusion that faster is always better. His tempos, like every part of his conceptions, were a particular response to a particular score. His Beethoven and Sibelius were as coherent and distinctive as his Schoenberg and Harbison. He was unpretentious and boyishly enthusiastic, known to all as “Jimmy.”

Clearly the orchestra understood that with Levine they could show they were one of the greatest bands in the world, and they rose to the opportunity. Unforgettable evenings accumulated: a full-throated and magnificent German Requiem, a ferocious Varèse Amériques, a two-year series pairing Beethoven and Schoenberg. Levine’s program note for the Beethoven Missa Solemnis began, “This is the greatest piece ever written! I mean it!” He made us believe it. Before long it dawned on us that the Boston Symphony was entering its most glorious period since the Koussevitzky era–and Levine might be a better conductor than Koussevitzky. You got used to emerging from Symphony Hall with your head buzzing, ecstatic.

Then pffffft.

On March 2, the BSO announced that Levine’s season was over and, likewise, his seven-year tenure as music director, effective in September but in practice immediately. At age 67, after three years of falling apart from chronic back trouble and other physical problems, with management trying to nudge him toward the exit so the orchestra could get on with its life, one more back collapse finished it. Levine had been profligate with his health for a long time, partly due to his killing schedule between the Met and the BSO. Now his lifestyle caught up with him. The Boston Symphony, having spent the three years of his decline in limbo, now entered some circle of hell where rudderless orchestras drift in despair.

For years to come it’s going to be guest conductors, with an occasional Levine appearance if he’s up to it. Can guests give good performances? Sure. But guest conductors equal to the BSO are a rare and endangered species. Most of the young maestros have orchestras and crowded schedules of their own. In practice the best guests tend to be semi-retired, like the incomparable long-time visitor Bernard Haitink, or like Sir Colin Davis, Christophe von Dohnányi, and Lorin Maazel. All those men are in their 80s. More importantly, guest conductors can’t shape an orchestra week by week, season by season, into an ensemble of some 70 people with a personality, a point of view, an almost clairvoyant communication among players and conductor that can approach the level of a string quartet’s.

Meanwhile the conductor search is on. Call it prospecting for the perfect mate or Saturday-night date. He or she doesn’t exist, but some people are much, much better than others. There’s looks and talent and experience, but there’s also chemistry, and those don’t always happen together. For an orchestra, there’s also the bottom line, which says that you want somebody holding the baton who’s as magnetic as possible, to put the butts in the seats. When you make a mistake you have to live with it for years, if not decades. The pitfalls and pratfalls of the search process are illustrated by the case of Seiji Ozawa.

In 1973, Ozawa arrived at Boston in a wave of enthusiasm. He was Mister Cool Maestro. He wore swinging love beads. He was a graceful, commanding lion on the podium. He had been mentored at Tanglewood, had studied with Herbert von Karajan in Berlin, and had enjoyed successful tenures with the Toronto and San Francisco Symphonies and well-received guest appearances with the BSO. He took over with the expectation that he’d bring new vision and vigor to an orchestra that had never been less than first-rate but that had never recovered its leading position and general pizazz since Koussevitzky retired in 1949 after a 25-year tenure that climaxed with the creation of the Tanglewood festival. Yes, Ozawa’s a little lightweight, experts said, and his English is sketchy, but with this orchestra to work with, he’ll ripen and mature soon enough, and he’ll build the audience.

Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa leads the Saito Kinen Orchestra

Ozawa did sell seats. As a hero in his homeland, he attracted to the orchestra millions in Japanese money. But he never did ripen all that much, just as his English remained sketchy. Now and then he gave a standout performance, usually in the full-throated late-Romantic and 20th-century literature, but most of the time what came out was glittering surfaces with nothing substantial beneath: no discernable concept, no vision. Nor did he bring any vital leadership to Tanglewood. For the 29 years of Ozawa’s tenure, music and vision languished in Boston.

And there you have the existential uncertainties involved in a conductor search. You don’t really know what you’ve got till the person arrives and unpacks the trunk. Think the Red Sox, looking for a pitcher and deciding Dice-K was the messiah. Turns out, dice was the word for him.

Ozawa announced his departure three years before the date, so the orchestra had plenty of time to mount a search. Levine’s exit was a shaky house of cards that collapsed all at once. From this point, simply naming a conductor will take two years or more, then a year or more before the chosen one can take the throne. Here’s a survey of that intricate and amorphous process. It’s like a roadmap where there are no roads.

Orchestra manager Mark Volpe says the BSO will form a search committee made up of four players elected by the orchestra, four members of the orchestra board, plus himself and the BSO artistic administrator. Orchestra board members are wealthy enthusiasts and patrons, volunteers not usually trained in music. Since the late 19th century, when Boston Brahmin Henry Lee Higginson created the Boston Symphony and ran it as his own little fiefdom, the history of orchestras has partly been a matter of conductors and musicians chipping away at the power of boards, so far with middling success.

The opinion of the players counts now, but the board still holds the power because they are the legal fiduciaries. If a music director does something outrageous or alienates the orchestra or plays too much music not enough people like, the board fires his backside. Boards have ousted conductors like Mahler, in New York, to Stokowski, in Philadelphia (the latter at the peak of his popularity, because he insisted on playing the Schoenberg violin concerto). When looking for a conductor, boards traditionally go for the more glamorous candidates, because boards tend to know more about money than music.

Among the first things the BSO search committee has to do is fill out the roster of guest conductors for the next couple of years. At the same time they have to decide on the job description for the coming music director. In that description, the artistic issue always comes first, but after that come many, many other issues relating to Tanglewood, fundraising, external commitments, community, age, health, availability, gender, chemistry, and so on, more or less endlessly. On the line are jobs, reputations, organizations, and millions of dollars.

Over the coming seasons the guest conductors will be a mix of maestros known and new to the orchestra. Every player in the orchestra fills out a grade form for every guest. Players are highly picky, but when a conductor gives the downbeat they know the real thing when they see it. (Except when they’re wrong.) Since anybody who is anybody is scheduled years ahead, it will probably take at least two years for the orchestra to see all persons of interest. Meanwhile, among the guest conductors in the next year or two, who is a real contestant in the beauty contest and who is not, says manager Volpe, is “fluid.” In other words, they’re not saying. From this stage until the end, the cards will be played very, very close, and speculation will fester month after month.

At last, the search committee “recommends” a name. The full orchestra board, with its own agenda, makes the decision. But if the final decision is not to the orchestra’s liking, there will be big, public trouble. A case in point: When Marin Alsop became the first woman to be named conductor of a major U.S. orchestra, much of the musical world cheered, but the Baltimore Symphony virtually revolted against the board that hired her. Whether that had to do with Alsop’s gender or her chops was the question, though of course the orchestra claimed the latter. That Alsop would keep her job was a foregone conclusion in any case. Under no circumstances could Baltimore jettison a historic female conductor before she took the podium. Everybody had to suck it up and hope for the best. Alsop is still at the helm in Baltimore and doing well, thank you very much, with a contract to 2015.

The conductor’s artistic skills come first, the mantra goes, then everything else. But everything else looms hugely. In the BSO’s case, health and age will be issues, surely, more than ever. Levine was not the first conductor to falter at the helm. In the late ‘60s, the orchestra got burned badly in hiring the aged and ailing William Steinberg. For four years he was indisposed much of the time, replaced by a brilliant but very green assistant conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas, age 24. The orchestra was furious, but there was nothing to be done until Seiji Ozawa took over in what might be called a rebound relationship. (The official BSO history on the website does not mention Tilson Thomas at all.)

With the BSO now, hot tickets the press has speculated on include, of all people, Michael Tilson Thomas (doing wonders in San Francisco, recently returned for a stint at Tanglewood after many years away, so perhaps forgiven by the orchestra); Robert Spano (started his rise as a BSO assistant, has led Brooklyn and Atlanta, teaches conducting at Tanglewood); Riccardo Chailly (superstar who has a contract with the Leipzig Gewandhaus till 2015 and has never conducted the BSO); and Mariss Jansons (late 60s, a heart condition, currently with the Concertgebouw in Holland).

Then there are the wild cards. Not all great or potentially great conductors are international superstars, and those are the ones you’d love to uncover. One name put forth is the Russian Vasily Petrenko, who now conducts the Liverpool Phil and is 34. Wouldn’t you know, he just signed a contract with Oslo that begins in 2013. Oslo to Boston is some commute. Of course, there’s Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel, aka “the Dude,” who took over L.A. in 2009. He’s the closest thing out there to a young Lenny Bernsteinian rock star. But Dudamel is 30 years old and only in the majors for about five years, and he ain’t gonna happen with Boston. The orchestra would erect barricades.

Naturally, the above are already music directors of important orchestras, with obligations stretching years ahead. That was the situation with Levine and the Met. He insisted on maintaining both jobs, which did his health and the BSO no good at all. With any major conductor who can be tempted away from a booked-up gig, it will take years to extract him from the old position and have him fully committed to Boston. Like Levine, some of them may want to sustain dual, if not dueling, podiums. That is not what the orchestra needs, but they might have to put up with it. It’s safe to say that this time the BSO will hope for younger and healthier candidates who show promise of settling in Boston. All that coming after artistic matters, in theory, of course.

And that’s what it’s like with orchestras and conductors. To summarize, for those who care about the Boston Symphony and the state of classical music in the United States: Just shoot us. Levine had his last rehearsals with the BSO on the Mahler Ninth, which he noted is “a work of farewell.” At its end, that symphony, like Levine’s career, dies and dies and dies. He collapsed before the performances.

Somehow, someday, the moment will come when the new guy (almost certainly a guy) will step onto the podium and a couple of thousand people sitting in the darkness will hope to be thrilled, and many of them will remember Levine and the Mahler Eighth and the German Requiem and other golden nights, a brief golden age bookended between hmmmm and pffffft, and that audience and thousands of others will feel hope again. Until then we’ve got a row of pretty faces week after week, and maybe some splendid three-night stands.