The case of the missing conductor

Two very big American orchestras have a very big problem
Jaime J. Weinman
Richard Termine/The New York Times

James Levine is one of the most famous conductors in North America, holding down two of its biggest jobs: musical director of the Metropolitan Opera and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. But he can’t always show up for either job. Jeremy Eichler, a music critic for the Boston Globe, told Maclean’s that the 67-year-old conductor “has for years struggled with back problems,” and over the past year, those problems have caused him to cancel many dates, throwing two cities into musical chaos. It turns out the most important thing about a conductor is not how insightful he is at interpreting Beethoven, but whether he’s in shape to get up on the podium.

Other health problems, including a kidney tumour, have caused Levine to miss performances in the past, but his back surgery kept him away for much of the 2009-10 season, plus the Boston Symphony’s summer festival at Tanglewood (where one of his replacements was the Canadian Opera Company’s Johannes Debus). In New York, Levine missed Alban Berg’s atonal Lulu, an acquired taste with audiences; his cancellation forced the company to stage the piece without the box-office appeal he would have brought.

The Met has reason to fear that things will get worse this September: observers think Levine might not be able to lead their new production of Wagner’s Ring cycle, with lavish sets imported from Quebec by director Robert Lepage. The anonymous writer of the popular Opera Chic blog told Maclean’s that although it would be “strange to think of the Met with a different music director,” it’s starting to seem like “a less-stressful post would be better suited to Levine’s health, if it keeps declining.”

In Boston, the impact of that decline has been so bad that the Boston Globe moved the story out of the arts pages and into an editorial, urging the orchestra to proceed “with one eye on a post-Levine future.” Boston fans still give Levine credit for making the orchestra play better when he’s there, but at this point he usually isn’t. “My sense is that the public and the musicians themselves are very frustrated with the situation,” Eichler says, “as surely Levine must be as well.”

This doesn’t usually happen with veteran conductors, who are known for being able to work late into their lives. Men like Daniel Barenboim and Lorin Maazel are older than Levine but keep more engagements. What may set Levine apart is that he is, as the Globe delicately put it, “a large man,” comparable to the heftiest of opera singers. Eichler says that though Levine’s medical history is “very tightly guarded,” many people “have stated that his weight may be a contributing factor.” In 2006, when he was conducting more, Levine attributed it to having lost weight, but now, even when he’s active, he often finds it difficult to conduct standing up.

It may not help that Levine, like most conductors of his stature, is needed full-time in two cities. “You have to imagine that holding down these jobs takes a major physical toll,” Eichler says. But he adds that a city can only get a star by agreeing to share him: “I can’t imagine Levine would have said ‘yes’ to Boston if they were requiring him to leave the Met.” The problems of the overworked Levine may be an extreme version of the tendency to overbook any well-known musician.

Still, younger conductors can at least cope with overwork on a physical level; Levine, for now, can’t. That may explain why Philadelphia signed Canadian wunderkind Yannick Nézet-Séguin to take over its orchestra. When the Globe suggested finding “a music-director prodigy” to replace Levine, it was a hint that conducting may go the way of professions where youth and stamina are important.

For now, though, Levine seems to be proceeding as if there’s no threat to his job. Though Eichler says “I don’t think anyone feels the status quo from last season can be maintained,” Levine’s schedule is over-stuffed: the opera blog Parterre pointed out that on Oct. 9, he is scheduled to conduct a Ring matinee for a live high-definition simulcast, then fly back to Boston to conduct a massive Mahler symphony that night. It seems that Levine, or his management, hasn’t yet started to worry about spreading himself too thin—so to speak.