Campus & Community

New BSO leader hits high notes at luncheon

5 min read

This past Sunday, Feb. 25, Harvard musicians, music teachers, and music lovers got a hint of what to expect when James Levine takes over as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO).

Levine, who was appointed in October 2001 to head the 121-year-old orchestra when its current director, Seiji Ozawa, steps down in 2004, was the guest of honor at a luncheon organized by the Harvard Office for the Arts. Responding to questions, Levine discussed his musical philosophy, leaving little doubt that the BSO will be in good hands.

Levine has served as artistic director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera since 1971. He will continue in that role while devoting 12 weeks per year to directing the BSO and spending three weeks at Tanglewood, the orchestra’s summer festival in the Berkshires.

Many of Levine’s remarks emphasized passion, emotion, and individuality as essential to making music and warned against trying to second-guess the tastes of the audience.

“The only thing I can do is work very hard on the music I believe in and try to communicate it with every fiber of my being. You’ll always find somebody who doesn’t like the things you like. Those performers who try to figure out what the audience likes are on a path that can’t take them anywhere.”

On the other hand, he said that he cannot understand audience members who will not give a piece a chance because they have already decided they don’t like that sort of music. Most often, it is modern and contemporary music that bears the brunt of such prejudices.

Levine told a story about a concert he gave in 1971 with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The program included a piece by the contemporary Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, flanked by compositions by Bach and Brahms. About to begin the Lutoslawski piece, Levine sensed a feeling of unrest among the audience and decided to address the issue directly.

“This situation has got to stop,” he told them. “I know you’re sitting there gripping the arms of your chairs, waiting for this piece to be over so you can hear the Brahms. But why don’t you sit back and relax and just listen? Don’t fight with the piece while we’re playing it.”

Levine said that when he is conducting, he tries to bear in mind that the audience is made up of people with all levels of musical experience. Some may have heard the piece many times while others have never heard it before, and still others may never have been to a concert before. His approach is to play the piece as though it were being presented for the first time.

“There is only one type of person in the audience that I am not playing for,” he said. “And that is the cynical, sardonic know-it-all.”

Levine warned against overintellectualizing music and said that before you can grasp a piece on an analytical level, you must first simply listen to it and enjoy it.

“The first time I heard Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, I was swept away by it, but I was a long way from knowing what I thought about it.”

Regarding musical education, Levine emphasized the need for individualized instruction, for finding a teacher whose personality is compatible and is able to speak to the student’s particular needs.

“I was very lucky,” he said. “The right teachers just fell in my lap.”

Speaking to the many undergraduates in the group, he advised them to throw themselves into the subjects they loved rather than spread themselves too thin.

“The main thing you have to do in college is not split your attention between what you’re really interested in and what you might do if that fails.”

Asked about how he views the relationship between the orchestra and the voice, Levine said that he regards the human voice as the standard by which all instrumentalists must gauge themselves. Because the voice is produced from within the body rather than by an exterior instrument, there is a peculiarly intimate relationship between the singer and the voice as well as between singer and voice teacher.

“It’s very mysterious,” he said, “something like a doctor-patient relationship.”

He said that problems developed when training for instrumentalists began to split off from vocal training. The result has been for instrumentalists to treat music as too abstract.

Levine made a similar criticism of music recording.

“Recording has done a lot of bad things for people,” he said.

The problem, he said, is that the technical element has gotten out of proportion. The industry’s fixation with producing a perfect recording by correcting all imperfections has cost recorded music its soul.

“Everything that’s inserted, while it’s technically a miracle, changes the balance of energy and the interpretation. Everyone could do with a lot more live music and a lot less sitting at home listening to recordings.”

As for his role as a conductor, Levine described himself as primarily concerned with interpreting music as the composer intended rather than filtering it through his own personality.

“If my personality is there, it’s because I can’t get rid of it, not because I’m trying to inject it into the piece. If I did that, I couldn’t be as open to the composer’s intentions.”

James Levine regards the human voice as the standard by which all instrumentalists must gauge themselves.