Classical Revival

A hundred folding chairs shuffle across the carpet in the Hatch Room of Symphony Hall. It's been four minutes since James Levine was first presented to the world as music director-designate of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and it's a turning point in Boston's cultural life.

The maestro is smiling — no, beaming — at the journalists and well-wishers who have come to hear this announcement. As Levine bobbles to adjust his '60s-era aviator glasses and tend to his silk pocket square, his hair, a wiry gray fan shaped like the wings of an F-16, obscures the inscription beneath the bust of Henry Lee Higginson behind him.

Higginson was a financier who, like his fellow 19th-century Bostonians, used some of his wealth to place the city among the world capitals of culture — in his case, by founding the Symphony in 1881, intending for it to become one of the best on earth. What has gone unsaid today, but is widely understood, is that by hiring Levine the orchestra is hoping to renew that promise.

“Getting Jimmy is like getting Babe Ruth back to Boston,” exults Nicholas Zervas, chairman of the search committee. BSO board of trustees chairman and venture capitalist Peter Brooke adds: “It's one thing to lose to the Yankees year after year, but why do we have to lose to the New York Philharmonic? With Jimmy, the BSO can become the greatest orchestra in the world.”

Not that the BSO, one of Boston's flagship cultural institutions, is a second-string symphony. During the just-ended run of Levine's predecessor, Seiji Ozawa, the BSO maintained its top-tier ranking. But it has not been considered the best orchestra in America since the days of Serge Koussevitsky, the Russian conductor who led the BSO from 1924 until 1949 and who established its summer home at Tanglewood. Ozawa's recordings had disappointing sales; the BSO today does not even have a recording contract. And while his farewell concerts over the last year had star power and excitement, longtime followers say that's precisely what many of Ozawa's earlier Boston concerts lacked. The hope is that Levine will return the Symphony to its glory days. “An orchestra like Boston needs somebody different from the predecessor,” says Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra. “A conductor shapes the orchestra through his repertoire, and Jimmy as an opera conductor has a much broader repertoire than Seiji. He'll make the [BSO] a very flexible ensemble. People will want to come to Boston to hear his music.”

In his dark polo sweater and suit, the 59-year-old Levine (pronounced “Luh-vyne”) looks like he'd be more comfortable in a classroom at MIT with chalk dust covering his sleeves than wearing the white tie and tails of a maestro. But Levine, revered yet referred to universally as “Jimmy,” is perfectly comfortable in that regalia. Although he could have become a piano virtuoso, he opted to be a conductor in the tradition of a Koussevitsky, a George Szell, and a Charles Munch, choosing to sculpt the entire sound of an orchestra rather than merely contribute to the whole.

Those who have played with him say Levine, smiling beatifically from the podium, can motivate even the most jaded player to give the performance of a lifetime. It's not that he's a virtuoso, they say. It's that every time he plays a piece, he hears something different in it. That's why he'll present the same work time after time over several seasons, squeezing from it the greatest possible complexity. And rather than simply pointing with his baton to cue his musicians, he makes eye contact, projecting his enthusiasm. When someone screws up, Levine will say something encouraging like, “That was really, really good, but I have a suggestion to make it even better.” (This is also why people have been caught unawares when they've been fired by Levine, who delegates that unpleasant duty to collaborators including his brother, his scheduler, and the general manager of New York's Metropolitan Opera, where he is currently artistic director.)

“Jimmy creates a confrontation between the musician and the music,” says Cambridge-based composer John Harbison, whose opera, The Great Gatsby, was a roaring success when Levine conducted it. “When he conducts a piece, it is much more than an encounter. It is an absorption.”

Levine catapulted the Met into global dominance and turned its pit orchestra into a preeminent concert orchestra. There is every expectation that he will work equal miracles here. By snaring Levine, the BSO has earned the envy of every other serious orchestra. And it was willing to do everything necessary to get him.

“There was no plan B,” says BSO managing director Mark Volpe. “It was virtually unanimous. Everyone wanted Levine.” Says Brooke: “We didn't have a fallback plan. We couldn't bring ourselves to pursue anybody else until we completed the dialogue with Levine — until Levine was either on the table or off the table.”

Such an outcome was perfectly conceivable. Levine had rejected advances from numerous top orchestras — Philadelphia, Chicago, and Berlin among them — some made public, others never proceeding beyond the first phone call to his agent. Instead, he supplemented his duties at the Met with responsibilities in Europe, as chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic and as music director at the UBS Verbier Festival Youth Orchestra in Switzerland. He has a mind-boggling itinerary of guest conducting slots scheduled through 2009. The symphonic world is his oyster.

Here's how Boston got him, how it almost didn't, and why the BSO wanted him so badly.

It was evident from the time he was a baby in Cincinnati that James Levine was a genius, and that his particular genius was for music. When his parents sang him lullabies, he sang along. So they could sleep later in the mornings, Levine's parents would place stacks of records, a plate of graham crackers, and a record player on a card table beside his crib, and the toddler kept himself happy for hours. At four, Jimmy was studying piano. When his grandmother took him to the Cincinnati Zoo Opera in the early 1950s, he used one of her knitting needles and conducted from his seat. He made his professional debut as a pianist at 10, playing a Mendelssohn piano concerto with the Cincinnati Symphony.

Levine's parents were delighted with their oldest child's precocity and his predilection for public performance. His father, Larry Levine, had been a big-band leader in the years before World War II under the stage name Larry Lee; his mother, Helen, had a brief career as a Broadway actress. For a musician at the nosebleed levels of high culture, Levine is remarkably down to earth. His parents may have piloted him to the Juilliard School, the Marlboro Music Festival, and the Aspen Festival, but they also kept him in public school and off The $64,000 Question. When Levine was headed to Aspen for the first time in his early teens, his mother begged soprano and teacher Phyllis Curtin: “You will look after my Jimmy, won't you?” In fact, Curtin recalls, Levine “needed nothing. Even as a young teenager, he was ebullient and intelligent with wide and deep interests.”

In music, at least. As for other duties, he prefers to delegate them to his palace guard, including his younger brother, Tom, who travels with him, and his scheduler, Ken Hunt. “He protects his time,” says Richard Dyer, classical-music critic at the Boston Globe and longtime Levine watcher. “Anything that anyone else can do for him, he lets them do to maximize his time and efficiency. When you talk to Levine, he gives you his undivided attention. But when your 15 minutes, or lunch, or half-hour is up, you know it's up.”

Levine dropped out of Juilliard, after which his career immediately took off under mentors including George Szell at the Cleveland Orchestra, for whom he served as assistant conductor starting in 1963, and Rudolf Bing at the Metropolitan Opera, where Levine was assistant conductor beginning in 1971. He was 28. Four years later, he became the music director of the Met, and in 1986 he was named artistic director. Two-thousand performances later, Levine is “at the top of his game,” according to William Cosel, who directed Evening at Pops: The Three Tenors for PBS. “And experience suggests that like all great conductors, he's going to get even better.”

Although Levine has had his pick of orchestra podiums, he's always had a thing about Boston. “In the back of his mind, he always was interested in Boston,” says Johanna Fiedler, daughter of legendary Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler and the author of Molto Agitato: The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera. When Levine conducted the BSO for the first time after being named music director, radio-host Ron Della Chiesa remembers, there was “instant electricity, real chemistry between Jimmy and the orchestra.” Levine, says the Austrian music director Hans Graf, “is a very warm-hearted person. His warm-heartedness masks his great competency. And Boston is a very warm-hearted and European orchestra. It's not a technocratic orchestra. The BSO is a musician's orchestra. And Jimmy Levine is a superb musician.” Levine himself says he fell in love with Symphony Hall, which he calls “the best concert hall in the world,” not to mention the orchestra and the audience, the first time he came to Boston. “It's my kind of place,” he says.

Nicholas Zervas was chairman of the BSO board when the call came in that Seiji Ozawa had resigned as the orchestra's music director. “I was caught by surprise,” he says. “We all were. Seiji just sort of announced that he had been talking to his wife and that he had decided that he had done what he had to do in Boston. That there were some other things he wanted to accomplish as part of his legacy, like building up orchestral music in Japan.” But Ozawa did not give a timetable for his departure, and he did not have another job lined up. That all changed a few weeks later when, while he was playing tennis in Vienna, Ozawa was offered the position of music director at the Vienna State Opera. The clock was now ticking for the BSO.

As board chairman, Zervas, who is a neurosurgeon, was empowered to name a music director by fiat, but he says, “that's a good way to ruin an orchestra.” Breaking with tradition, he brought the musicians into the search process. The selection committee was composed of six BSO musicians, six trustees, and three representatives of senior management.

The entire search was closed tighter than a wing nut. “We didn't want the process to be porous,” Zervas says. “From day one we had a pact that nobody was going to say anything. We didn't interview candidates. We didn't talk about anybody publicly or visit anybody. We maintained total silence. I didn't want prospective candidates to hear themselves talked about in the press.” He reaches into his desk and holds up a copy of a confidential questionnaire. Two versions were drafted, one for the musicians, another for the trustees, asking each to suggest their choices for music director and to list the attributes they considered most important. The committee kept score.

The musicians' responses were clear: They wanted someone who could make the BSO the best orchestra in the world. And they felt that person was Levine. As a formality, says Volpe, the selection committee wrestled with some basic questions: “Did we want one music director for the winter season and another one for Tanglewood? Do we want this guy or woman involved in the Pops? If the candidate didn't live in Boston, how many weeks as a minimum were we willing to accept? When it came down to it, the orchestra wanted one boss, winter and summer, and with whom the musicians felt positive chemistry. . . . It came down to absolute consensus on Jim Levine.”

That was the easy part. But how to entice him to accept? Volpe flew to New York for a meeting with Levine. “I said, 'Our orchestra would like you to come to Boston,'” Volpe recounts. “Levine said he was flattered and [that] if there was any place he had fantasized about conducting, it was Boston. But he said, 'I keep getting these offers and I keep turning them down.'” Volpe urged him to think about it. “I asked, 'Why do you do that?' And I caught the next plane back to Boston.”

A few days later, Volpe got a call from Levine, who said he thought he was ready for the next step in his career, from the orchestra pit to the podium, a late-career transition that maestros including Toscanini, Koussevitsky, and Mahler had made before him. “He said he was ready to build an orchestra, not just guest conduct,” remembers Volpe, “and that Boston had the orchestra, the hall, and the audience that could enable him to do just that.”

The orchestra wanted Levine, and Levine wanted the orchestra. But nothing is ever that simple. Levine explained to Volpe that in order to come, he would need a guarantee from the musicians that they were willing to give him the “flexibility” he said he needed, including more rehearsal hours and changes in the number and times of performances.

One of the least flexible beasts in the labor-management world, as it turns out, is an orchestra contract. Musicians work under delicately negotiated agreements that cover not only the mundane issues of pay, pension, and health insurance, but also specify strict limits on rehearsal hours and the number of performances to be played without additional pay. Levine “wanted to know if the orchestra was willing to work with him, to try new ideas,” says Ann Hobson Pilot, the BSO principal harpist and a member of the search committee who went to New York for a get-acquainted meeting with the maestro. “We knew that the orchestra wanted him, but it wasn't our place to say we'll give you anything you want. He never really articulated it, but he was asking us to have the flexibility to be flexible. He never said, for example, 'I want an extra rehearsal before every concert.' That's been frustrating. Under the trade agreements that we renegotiate every three years — and are negotiating right now — we are not able to give him anything he wants. But we have to trust him, and he has to trust us.”

Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe also attended meetings with Levine in New York and in Boston. “Our meetings were very focused, very intense, and very long. We spent hours together exploring how we can, as the Boston Symphony, reach a new artistic level that will pull the whole world of music forward and into sync with how the world is changing. We recognize that people love to listen to Mozart and Beethoven, but they also want to listen to music that is new and interesting, and they want to hear music — new or old — played in a new and convincing way. For him to be a real leader, to help us move people, and to create with our orchestra the kind of excitement and awe that surrounded certain orchestras in certain eras — for example, Boston under Koussevitsky.”

The chief obstacle to getting Levine to commit to the BSO was never money. It was time. It took six months to find enough time between the players' commitments and Levine's overstuffed date-book just to wrap up the negotiations. Then there was the problem of Levine's schedule. He carries a leather-bound ledger that outlines his whereabouts from now until 2009, excessive for the symphony world but common in opera, where coordinating singers, directors, orchestras, and repertoire can be a 10-year process. Levine wanted the job but was unable to begin until the 2004-2005 season because of prior commitments at the Met, in Munich, and in Verbier, meaning there would be two years of limbo between Ozawa's departure this past summer and Levine's arrival.

Even so, Levine's influence is already suffusing the sound. Malcolm Lowe says he finds himself playing differently now, asking himself, “Gee, I wonder if Jimmy will like the bowing here. Will he want it more articulated or less?” This despite the fact that Levine's first five-year term does not begin until 2004. Until then, Levine sightings will be scarce in Boston, his time here limited to one concert series next season and involvement in the audition of any new musicians for the orchestra.

Meanwhile, beginning with the season that opens this month, the BSO will be led by a series of guest conductors, anchored by principal guest conductor Bernard Haitink. (Levine will conduct in January.) Boston will hear a wide repertoire performed under the batons of guest conductors, but for the next two years the “Boston sound” will be leaderless, and could well get muddled.

That will undoubtedly change when Levine joins the BSO full-time. (He plans to keep an apartment in New York and live in a hotel suite while in Boston, though he is looking for a house near Tanglewood.) His work ethic is as legendary as his disposition. He will routinely conduct a four-hour opera Saturday matinee at the Met and return a few hours later to conduct the five-hour evening performance. “Jimmy is all business,” says Ron Della Chiesa. “He'll eat a sandwich and keep on rehearsing without a break. When the concert's over, he'll go home.” Gideon Toeplitz, managing director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, predicts: “Jimmy will make everybody work. He's not a party guy. He won't go to tennis games or ball games” like Ozawa did. “When he works, everybody around him works. And he gets them to work. It will be a very different work ethic at the BSO under Jimmy than under Seiji.”