We’re undeniably in the era of James Levine. The Cincinnati-born, 61-year-old conductor is right now art music’s Great Enabler. As music director of the Metropolitan Opera for nearly the last 30 years and in the home stretch of his first season as chief conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, his potential for goosing the possibilities of 21st-century classical music performance is unique.
True, there will be excitement elsewhere. Wherever Pierre Boulez chooses to conduct—at the London or Chicago symphonies or in Cleveland or Bayreuth—he demonstrates his elegance, electrifying power, and downright perfection as a guest guru, but with no time to build on a particular triumph. Whatever Michael Tilson Thomas achieves in San Francisco, Esa-Pekka Salonen in Los Angeles, David Robertson in St. Louis, or Robert Spano in Atlanta are local wonders of brilliant leadership, specific to those towns, but not spreadable.
But the Met, for all its fear of conservative audiences, has ventured into modern classics and new pieces enough to encourage other American companies to do likewise and even try to outdo New York’s operatic Wal-Mart. Also attributed to Levine is the gradual buildup of the Met’s orchestra into one of the world’s finest ensembles. This conductor’s orchestral expertise has also been felt in Boston, where the BSO has already regained its historic Koussevitzkian polish and brilliance. Also, the international music citizenry is awaiting what Levine can accomplish with a probably shaken-up Tanglewood Music Center. Yes, his health problems can affect his podium procedures, but his vision for music’s future is a very probable 20/20.