The Maestro to the Rescue

The Boston Pops’ Fourth of July fireworks spectacular keeps getting more horrifyingly trashy with each passing year. And James Levine is the only man who can stop it.

It’s the Fourth of July, 2008, and the Esplanade is a mass of people. Kids and families are spilling out everywhere, eating lukewarm potato salad and slathering themselves with sunscreen. Many of them had to leave their homes in the suburbs at the crack of dawn to get a decent spot, but that’s the price you have to pay to fully experience the annual Pops fireworks spectacular. Anticipation is running high. An electric patriotism hangs in the air. In other words, it feels just like any other year.

Only this isn’t like any other year, and people know it. You can hear the whispers, see the unease in the way their eyes scan their fellow revelers. The Pops organization, ordinarily voluble, has been curiously mum on the lineup for this year’s show. Even more alarming was the sudden disappearance of Pops conductor Keith Lockhart, who, it was rumored, wound up in some kind of Misery scenario a few weeks ago after his car broke down near Tanglewood.

Abruptly, a curtain that’s been installed over the front of the Hatch Shell parts.

“Whoa, Keith Lockhart looks like hell,” says a man.

“That’s not Keith Lockhart,” says his friend.

Indeed, it isn’t. It’s Boston Symphony Orchestra music director James Levine. He’s clad in a plain tuxedo, unadorned by red Chucks or anything else that would help achieve the level of lethal cuteness people have come to expect from Lockhart. He’s sweating badly in the heat, and his hair is wilder than usual. He barely acknowledges the crowd, which is beginning to murmur.

Levine gestures to the orchestra, and it launches into the overture to Candide. The familiar, bombastic piece reassures the audience, which claps its approval. A cool breeze comes off the water. Maybe it’ll be okay after all.

But then Levine turns back to his musicians, and they ease into the first movement of Dimitri Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony. It’s dark, cold, a little despairing, as you would expect of something coming out of Stalin’s Russia. Some are enraptured by the performance’s strange beauty. Others are starting to make faces.

“Where’s John Philip Sousa, Daddy?” a child whines.

“He’s dead, son.”

The first movement is promptly succeeded by the clamorous, militaristic second, accompanied by an orgy of pyrotechnics. A few malfunction and scream across the Esplanade, careening off trees and narrowly missing the concertgoers, many of whom now huddle together, trembling with rage at the maestro’s disregard for both pop culture and patriotism. The piece ends with a horrific crash that jars a new set of concrete slabs loose from the ceiling of the Big Dig.

This is followed by a perfunctory but competent spin around the 1812 Overture, and the curtain falls. The show is over.

So goes my dream for the Fourth.

I realize that a Levine-led Fourth of July Shostakovich spectacular may strike some as a cultural atrocity on par with, oh, punching a guy in the face at Symphony Hall. But it’s not nearly as monstrous as what the show has devolved into. In 2004 we got David Lee Roth. Bad enough, but okay. The next year featured country rapper Cowboy Troy, doing a song called “Our America,” which nimbly incorporated parts of the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Pledge of Allegiance, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The 2006 concert was the scariest yet, with Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, hateful a cappella boy band Rockapella, the Vermont Air National Guard, American Idol loser Ayla Brown, a musical tribute to civil rights, and running commentary by one “Dr. Phil,” which appeared to be some sort of eel. It couldn’t have been more grotesque if they’d recruited Jessica and Ashlee Simpson to reenact the Lincoln-Douglas debates against strains of “God Bless America” played on PVC piping by the Blue Man Group.
Stopping this before it deteriorates further into the musical equivalent of the Burlington Mall is itself a valid reason for handing off the reins to Maestro Levine. If nothing else, the move would restore some dignity to the way we in the Cradle of Liberty celebrate our heritage. This is Boston, after all. We have standards.

But there’s a deeper reason: What James Levine has come to represent for Boston needs to be spread well beyond Symphony Hall. Levine’s a controversial figure. His supporters applaud him for introducing more-challenging modern music into the BSO’s programming and expanding the horizons of an orchestra whose repertoire had started to mold. His detractors label him an aural terrorist. The two camps routinely skirmish in the letters section of the Globe, and for modern music–loving Boston-ians, the bluster of the opposition can be highly gratifying:

“He was the wrong choice and his performance has shown the disaster of this selection. I won’t renew my membership.”

“Subscribers [are] becoming sick and tired of Levine trying to shove…contemporary favorites of his down our throats.”

“Perhaps James Levine suffers from the same hubris as Harvard president Larry Summers?”

It’s not hard to understand why the old guard wouldn’t like Levine, but even their protests are a sign of his accomplishments. Levine’s tenure at the BSO has people acting as though classical music matters enough to argue over. When you go to a performance, you can see the effects. With the introduction of more-modern stuff—which, it bears mentioning, makes up only a fraction of the music—he has started attracting a fresh crop of listeners. Most of the crowd at any given show is still old—zombie-movie old—but now it’s peppered with twenty- and thirtysomethings who are as into the new music as the more conservative crowd is opposed to it.

None of this is to say Levine’s genius is in dividing people. His genius is in challenging people to listen to unfamiliar things, and articulate what they like and what they don’t like. He’s not flashy or confrontational—he’s thoughtful, and he programs the music in ways that help show the logical progression between the pieces, like his frequent retracing of how we got from tried-and-true Beethoven to scourge-of-blue-hairs Arnold Schönberg.

Getting people this engaged is no small feat, particularly in a Brahmin stronghold like Symphony Hall, which itself can be seen as a microcosm of Boston, a place unmatched in its inability to ever handle change ration-ally. In fact, as the town struggles to reconcile its historic character and its pressing need to evolve, we could stand to implement a Levine Strategy citywide. He can start with the Pops concert, and then move on to another project—like helming a cultural protectorate for the Greenway.

It may make some uncomfortable, but it will be good for us. I’m even willing to compromise a bit. If we can arrange to have Levine do next year’s Fourth, Keith Lockhart can come back for 2009. I will say this, though: If so much as a single phone call is placed to Larry the Cable Guy’s handlers in the run-up to the show, I for one will be honoring my nation’s heritage from the fruited plains of Nova Scotia.