On Indispensability

“The cemeteries of the world are full of indispensable men,” Charles de Gaulle once famously remarked. A rather public discussion of whether music directors can be indispensable is happening over the physical health of James Levine and its impact on the institutional health of the Metropolitan Opera and the Boston Symphony.

At some point the absence of the music director of an opera company or a major orchestra — even from day-to-day performances, let alone major artistic initiatives — becomes debilitating for the institution. That point may have arrived, certainly at the Boston Symphony and possibly at the Met.

Since it was announced last month that Mr. Levine, 66, must undergo surgery for a painful herniated disc, Mark Volpe, the managing director of the Boston Symphony, and Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met, have made candid statements about the need to have serious talks with Mr. Levine to assess what he can realistically commit to.

At the Met he was to have led four performances of Puccini’s “Tosca,” starting on Wednesday night, and three performances in May of Berg’s “Lulu,” a work he conducts incomparably. Fabio Luisi, an accomplished conductor, will take his place…

Levine is the best conductor of Lulu in the world? That’s possible, of course; what’s not possible is that he’s so much the best that no one can else can conduct a major-league performance of the work.

…Last fall he was to have conducted all nine Beethoven symphonies with the Boston Symphony. A Beethoven symphony cycle is hardly innovative programming, but somehow, during his long career, Mr. Levine had never conducted the complete works. He sold the project to the management as a chance for him and his orchestra to make a statement. The performances were to be recorded live, in hopes of releasing a complete set of recordings. Mr. Levine missed all the Beethoven concerts because of spinal surgery. The project became simply another run-through of staples with a roster of guest conductors.

As opposed to what? A run-through of staples with one conductor? But that’s the view from New York; that Levine really is indispensable.

The view from Boston is a little different:

As music director James Levine prepares for back surgery that could keep him from taking the podium at Tanglewood this summer, frustrations are building within the orchestra, and a stunning detail has emerged: Levine has no signed contract with the BSO.

The orchestra penned a contract extension more than a year ago to extend Levine’s tenure through 2012, but BSO officials say Levine never signed the paperwork. That could mean that the orchestra can replace him at any time.

Mark Volpe, the BSO’s managing director, cautions that the orchestra considers its relationship with Levine important and plans to wait until after his surgery to discuss his future.

“Our hope is that he has a successful surgery, and everyone is wishing him the best,’’ said Volpe. “But he’s got to get through the surgery and then we’ll see. This is not tenable, the uncertainty. We have to protect ourselves.’’

I love the term “emerged.” Little details like the lack of a contract between the country’s largest orchestra (and certainly one of best-managed orchestras on the planet) and its music director don’t “emerge.” They are made public deliberately. “A stunning detail has emerged” is code for “the management of the BSO has told the press.” “We have to protect ourselves,” when added to “we don’t have a contract with him,” is code for “not indispensable.”

The Levine camp fired back through the NY Times:

Mr. Levine’s original contract with the Boston Symphony expired last year, and the current agreement covers this season and next, Mr. Volpe said. After the economy crashed in late 2008, the Boston Symphony cut the pay for some of its top talent and administrators, including Mr. Levine. A letter was sent to Mr. Levine’s representative, Ronald A. Wilford, chairman of Columbia Artists Management, detailing the revised salary and payment schedule.

Mr. Wilford said that Mr. Levine accepted the pay cut, and that they considered the agreement with Boston — documented in e-mail messages — to be fully negotiated and binding.

Among other things, this dispute should highlight for musicians the extent to which the press about our business is generated by interested parties within the business. It’s hard not to be cynical about the press when the coverage of one’s own business can be – and usually is – so easily manipulated. And it’s hard to figure out what’s really going on when the subtext of what is written is more important – and likely more truthful – than the actual press coverage.

That subtext appears to be that Levine wants to hold on to both positions without being able to commit to actually be able to do either job, much less both, due to disability, while at least one of his employers is beginning to conclude that it’s not worth the disruption to keep him on the payroll.

It’s ironic, though, that an argument about a music director’s indispensability is being played out in the press solely because the institutions involved are so large, so well-run and so important to the cultural life of their cities that they can far more easily weather the departure of a music director than could many orchestras in places that neither the Boston Globe nor the New York Times have ever heard of.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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