Levine resigns from BSO; Birtwistle premiere still a go

We’re saddened to learn of James Levine’s cancellation of the rest of his appearances this season at the Boston Symphony Orchestra and his resignation from the post of BSO Music Director. Levine has been in that position since 2004, but has had to cancel a number of appearances during his tenure due to a variety of health problems. In an interview published today in the New York Times, Levine indicated that he will retain his position as Music Director at the Metropolitan Opera. Apparently, conversations between Levine and the BSO about a possible future role with the orchestra are ongoing.

The BSO plans to keep its season underway with minimal changes apart from substitute conductors. They’re even going to premiere a new work this week under the baton of Assistant Conductor Marcelo Lehninger. In Boston’s Symphony Hall on March 3,4,5, and 8, and at Carnegie Hall in New York on March 15, the orchestra and soloist Christian Tetzlaff will be giving the world premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s Violin Concerto.

It’s bittersweet that Levine is stepping down during a week when an important commission, one of several during his tenure, is seeing its premiere. I made a number of pilgrimages from New York to Boston (thank goodness for Bolt Bus!) to hear him conduct contemporary music with the BSO,  including pieces by Harbison, Wuorinen, Babbitt, and Carter. He helped a great American orchestra (with a somewhat conservative curatorial direction) to make the leap into 21st century repertoire and was a terrific advocate for living composers.

Many in Boston and elsewhere have complained that by taking on the BSO, while still keeping his job at the Met, Levine overreached and overcommitted himself. Further, when his health deteriorated, some suggest that he should have stepped aside sooner.

I’ll not argue those points. But I will add that, when he was well, Levine helped to create some glorious nights of music-making in Boston that I’ll never forget. And for that, I’m extraordinarily grateful.

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I’ll admit that I was a bit surprised to hear that Birtwistle was composing a violin concerto, as it seemed to me an uncharacteristic choice of solo instrument for him. After all, the composer of Panic and Cry of Anubis isn’t a likely candidate for the genre that’s brought us concerti by Brahms and Sibelius (and even Bartok and Schoenberg!).

But then I thought again. Having heard his Pulse Shadows and the recent Tree of Strings for quartet, both extraordinary pieces, I can see why he might want to explore another work that spotlights strings. Perhaps his approach to the violin concerto will bring the sense of theatricality, innovative scoring, and imaginative approach to form that he’s offered in so many other pieces.

I’m hoping to get a chance to hear it when it the orchestra comes to New York. No pilgrimage this time. My next Bolt Bus trip to Boston will likely have to wait ’til next season to hear the BSO in its post-Levine incarnation.

Superlative Sessions

Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music

Friday, August 13 at 2:30 PM

Lenox, Massachusetts

Just about the best thing I’ve heard thus far at the 2010 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music is a performance of Roger Sessions’ relatively late (1975) Five Pieces for Piano by Tanglewood Fellow Alexander Bernstein.

While his From My Diary, an earlier non-dodecaphonic group for solo piano, is programmed more frequently, Five Pieces is some of Sessions’ best piano writing. Dedicated to the then recently deceased composer Luigi Dallapiccola, they are dazzling works that combine harmonic rigor and abundant virtuosity with an unerring sense of pacing. While Sessions is frequently described as having a somewhat vinegary palette, these pieces contain some considerably lush verticals. They don’t linger in this energetically modernist work, but these sumptuous glancing blows help to make the piece one of my favorites in Sessions’ catalogue.

The impression that Bernstein made is far more than a glancing blow. He played these pieces with such assurance and musicality that the audience could scarcely contain themselves. What was programmed as the ‘progenitor’s piece’ on a concert of later modernists, an appetizer to a hearty main course of Babbitt, Wuorinen, and Foss, was anything but an amuse-bouche. It received a number of curtain calls and a hearty share of hoots and hollers (happily, the students here are enthusiastic supporters of one another!). If this is what Bernstein can do now with Sessions, I can’t wait to hear his Babbitt, Carter, and Boulez in a few years. Scratch that: now please!