Friday, March 4, 2011

For the Record

In this morning's New York Times, critic Anthony Tommasini — he of the top ten greatest composers of all time — expatiates on the departure of James Levine from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. On the topic of Maestro Levine's championship of modern music, Mr. Tommasini has this to say:

He was criticized in many quarters for his intense devotion to complex modernist composers like Elliott Carter, Charles Wuorinen and Milton Babbitt. Not that these giants were not deserving of advocacy. But there were so many other composers and styles of contemporary music that Boston audiences were not hearing. Still, patrons and critics were willing to indulge Mr. Levine in his intellectual passions, as long as he would be there to make his case for this music and carry out his plans.

But he was not. In 2008, as part of the orchestra’s celebration of Mr. Carter’s 100th birthday, the Tanglewood Music Center’s annual festival of contemporary music was devoted entirely to Mr. Carter, an extreme programming concept. Mr. Levine was determined to immerse the young fellowship musicians at the center and Tanglewood audiences in Mr. Carter’s compositions. But illness forced him to withdraw from the entire festival and to miss most of the Tanglewood program that summer.

The second paragraph here presents an incomplete picture of what went on at Tanglewood that summer, and I was there. First, I question whether devoting a single week to our greatest living composer on the occasion of his hundredth birthday is in any way "extreme." More to the point, Mr. Tommasini neglects to mention that Oliver Knussen and other skilled and dedicated conductors stepped in for Mr. Levine and brought the festival off without a hitch. The young performers got their immersion without his presence. Mr. Carter was delighted with the performances, and the reviews of Mr. Tommasini's colleague Allan Kozinn were quite positive. Mr. Levine was surely missed, but in some ways, he wasn't. He set the machine in motion, and it ran of itself. The BSO gave only one performance, on the final night of the festival, an all-Carter program conducted by Oliver Knussen and Shi-Yeong Sung — "to superb effect," in Mr. Kozinn's phrase.

And I'd still rather hear Carter and Babbitt than all those other kinds of contemporary music that Mr. Tommasini says Mr. Levine overlooked. A lot of them are godawful.

It's astounding to me that a critic would be so harsh and unfeeling toward a man with such serious health problems. Since when do we blame people for kidney failure? Mr. Levine should be thanked, and we should wish him well. He tried his best given his condition, and if he stayed in denial a little too long, it was the kind of failure that comes only with great ambition and accomplishment. The world hasn't come to an end.

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