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Fall Arts Preview | OUT OF TOWN

Boston's uncommon conductor

September 19, 2004|Mark Swed

On Oct. 22, James Levine will begin his tenure as music director of the Boston Symphony with a gala performance of Mahler's Eighth Symphony. It will surely be an event, what with Levine's well-known tendency to extract every bit of Mahlerian ecstasy out of this gargantuan work and what with all the expectations of a celebrated American conductor taking over a celebrated (though in recent decades somewhat marginalized) American orchestra.

Indeed, the Levine-Boston match looks like a marriage made in musical heaven. The Beantown players are said to love Levine. The music community unquestionably does. The exciting programming for his first season finds him mixing modern music and the classics: A typical concert includes Bach, Ives, Varese and Gershwin. Major American music, such as Elliott Carter's "Sinfonia: Sum fluxae pretium spei," will be played in the U.S. for the first time. It almost looks too good to be true.

And it may be. In New York, where he is music director of the Metropolitan Opera, the 61-year-old conductor's health problems have long been a matter of concern in private conversations. Now members of the Met orchestra have begun to acknowledge publicly that he has developed a shaky beat and that his energy can lag to a point where he can be hard to follow. Levine contends that the condition is not Parkinson's, despite similar symptoms, and that it has been stabilized by his doctors. If so, lucky Boston, which has not had a music director of this caliber since Charles Munch left 42 years ago.

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