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Stretching exercises
The BSO challenges the audience and itself

One of the major local arts news stories of the last six months is that Boston has regained its pre-eminent position in the classical-music world, one established early in the 20th century thanks to such important conductors as Karl Muck, Pierre Monteux, and Serge Koussevitzky, music directors of the city’s most visible and best-endowed musical institution, the Boston Symphony Orchestra. By the 1960s, the BSO had lost some of its edge, and after 29 years under Seiji Ozawa, the world’s estimate of the BSO had sunk even lower. Not that Ozawa wasn’t popular, but he was more a celebrity than a significant musicmaker or tastemaker. In the annals of music history, his directorship won’t matter.

Yet in less than one season, under James Levine, the BSO has restored its position of international significance. The playing has improved immeasurably, morale is high (at least as far as artistic accomplishment is concerned), and the programming has become more exciting, more varied, more ambitious, more thoughtful. This should be front-page news!

But how does our pre-eminent daily newspaper respond? Instead of supporting its respected classical-music critic, Richard Dyer, who’s been an ardent champion of the BSO, the Boston Globe, which has cut back on its serious arts coverage, has also been publishing wet-blanket articles that almost seem intended to undermine Dyer’s authority. Last spring, the Globe ran a front-page story ("New BSO head will conduct despite ills") that picked up a front-page story by its parent company, the New York Times, about Levine’s alleged physical deterioration, a story that reported nothing about the maestro’s health that hadn’t been known for at least a decade. Front-page?

Earlier this month, the Globe published a front-page Sunday Arts "think piece" in which critic-at-large Ed Siegel (formerly its TV and theater critic) attacked Levine’s repertoire. ("Why can’t James Levine offer modern music that’s edifying and still enjoyable?" was the question under the headline.) The article complained that Levine has a penchant for "atonal" music when he should be appealing to music lovers still alienated by "ugly" modern music. (A friend to whom I mentioned this article asked, "What year is this?") Siegel wants more music by such accessible contemporary figures as John Adams, Jennifer Higdon, and Osvaldo Golijov, composers "apparently not favored by Levine," and certainly no Schoenberg (who is one of the 20th-century’s great innovators, and with whom, like him or not, music lovers have to contend) or Milton Babbitt, whom Siegel said he loathes. (Levine has programmed one relatively short 12-tone piece of Babbitt’s, a world premiere.) Siegel admits he shares Levine’s "love" for György Ligeti but thinks the man’s music should be relegated to the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick movies. This piece was surely calculated to provoke letters, and the following Sunday, the Globe published six, three supporting Siegel, three taking issue.

Anyone is entitled to a prejudice, even an old one. But was it responsible to raise this issue before the music director ended his first season? "If Levine is asking the BSO audiences to stretch, shouldn’t he show that he can too?", Siegel asked — a question that seems bizarre after 10 Levine programs of far greater stylistic variety, balance, and musical coherence than BSO audiences have heard in decades. Maybe it’s not Levine who needs the stretching exercises.

Some members of the orchestra do, however. The Globe’s latest front-page art-bashing story, by Geoff Edgers, explained that BSO musicians fear that Levine’s demanding programs may aggravate their physical problems ("Levine’s pace proves hard on BSO," March 17). But a significant part of this story turned up far from the headline: Levine and the BSO management have been listening to the players. Levine had already shortened several programs (including this week’s), chosen a more convenient day for extra rehearsals, and hired a "consultant" to "tutor the players on avoiding injury" — which may turn out to be a positive step. Not one musician said that the more strenuous performances, or the extra rehearsals (well within union stipulations, and for which the players get extra pay), have actually caused any of these injuries. (One player’s problem stemmed from a 20-year-old tennis injury, another’s from carrying small children.) And there was virtually unanimous agreement that the extra effort was paying off. These musicians work hard for their six-figure salaries, but haven’t they badly needed to get back on track? What made the Globe put another anti-Levine, anti-art story on the front page?

At a press concert announcing the Tanglewood season, BSO general manager Mark Volpe talked about the BSO’s resistance to "dumbing down." If the BSO isn’t going to play a demanding repertoire, Levine asked, "who is?" If musicians "play only what they know, and rehearse it less and less, how are they going to develop? A certain interaction from one facet of the musical culture to another is necessary for musicians to stretch and grow — for audiences to stretch and grow." As far as this first season was concerned, Levine said (and apologized for his self-congratulation), "I don’t know how we could have done it better. We had to feel our way, not just take a repertoire the orchestra already knows. Without the new work, there wouldn’t have been a prayer. I’m knocked out that they played so differently so quickly!"

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Issue Date: March 25 - 31, 2005
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