Friday, October 08, 2010

The new Manny?

Yesterday morning, Boston arts blogger Joel Brown raised a question that I couldn't resist sharing for the benefit of some readers whom I know to be fellow members of Red Sox Nation as well as classical music fans: is James Levine the next Manny Ramirez? Brown certainly seems to think so:
OK, it's silly, but think about the parallels:

He makes his living swinging a stick.

He's a superstar paid millions to help a Boston institution regain greatness.

He's got crazy hair.

And at the moment, his status with the team is iffy.

By the accounts of those who were there, James Levine's gala seventh season opener with the Boston Symphony Orchestra last Saturday night was a musical triumph. In a Globe review, Jeremy Eichler called it "easily the most artistically rewarding season-opener I have attended in Symphony Hall." He also notes that "the stakes could not have been higher." An April operation to correct back problems is the latest in a series of health problems that have clouded Levine's future with the BSO. . . .

Levine is 67. His latest medical crisis caused him to miss more than half of his scheduled BSO appearances last season and the entire summer at Tanglewood. Some of the fans who pay big money for tickets were disheartened to find themselves watching replacement conductors. And that's hardly a new phenomenon, as various Levine health problems extend back several seasons.

When he's on the podium, he's not in a musical slump - quite the opposite. But over the course of this latest absence, the relationship between him and management seems to have deteriorated. Levine is by all accounts a brilliant man solely focused on his art, and the BSO has always handled him with kid gloves. But this year BSO Managing Director Mark Volpe has talked openly of Levine's unsigned contract and of needing to resolve the uncertainties created by Levine's health problems.

The eccentric slugger Manny Ramirez once existed inside a protective PR coccoon of "Manny being Manny." But ultimately the problems between him and the Red Sox became public, centering around his attitude and commitment to his work.

In light of his health problems, the fear is that Levine is too committed. Volpe went so far as to send Levine a letter - the Times called it a "rebuke" - expressing concern about this weekend's schedule. The subscription season opens with Mahler's "Resurrection" symphony at Symphony Hall tonight and Friday afternoon. Levine's grueling back-and-forth itinerary then has him conducting "Das Rheingold" at the Met on Saturday afternoon and the Mahler again with the BSO on Saturday night. Hope the Chinatown bus runs on time.

. . . [W]hile no one is concerned about Levine dogging it at the podium . . . clearly there are questions about the wisdom of his scheduling decisions. There are doubts about whether he can continue to serve both the BSO and the Met. . . .

Manny helped the Red Sox break the curse and win a World Series or two. But when he was seen to be a problem to the team, he was broomed anyway, in 2008.

This is not the first time Levine has returned to the podium at Symphony Hall vowing that he's restored and fully ready to carry on. It will be great if he conducts the BSO in good health for years to come. When he's hale, he and the orchestra swing for the fences and often connect. But if Levine misses more concerts, Volpe and company are going to have some difficult decisions to make, with no good options.

WWTD? (What would Theo do?)
The parallels are there, I think. Like many others, I'll be waiting to see whether Levine makes it through the season with his schedule intact (at the Met as well as in Boston). In the meantime, though, Mark Volpe might want to give Theo Epstein a call. AMDG.


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