Get Well, James Levine - Boston Symphony, Too

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We don't predict the future here, but in my experience, when an orchestra starts talking about having to "protect ourselves" in a discussion about its music director, the music director's job is well on its way to being done.

Turns out, on top of everything else, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and James Levine don't have a current signed contract, the Boston Globe's Geoff Edgers reports today.

"The orchestra penned a contract extension more than a year ago to extend Levine’s tenure through 2012, but BSO officials say Levine never signed the paperwork. That could mean that the orchestra can replace him at any time," the Globe story says.

Levine, who is artistic chief of both the Boston Symphony and the Metropolitan Opera, has missed a lot of work at both institutions for several years due to various health problems. The latest trouble is back pain, which will require surgery. He has missed 60 percent of his scheduled conducting dates at the BSO this season.

The orchestra's managing director signaled for the first time today what should have been obvious some time ago: that the orchestra has its own future to worry about.

“Our hope is that he has a successful surgery, and everyone is wishing him the best,’’ said Volpe. “But he’s got to get through the surgery and then we’ll see. This is not tenable, the uncertainty. We have to protect ourselves.’’

 “We’re all kind of wondering whether we’re going to see him again,’’ said Bonnie Bewick, a violinist. “I think the orchestra and the board are starting to feel that maybe it’s time to start a search again.’’

The Met should also be protecting itself. The rumor sphere is already filled with speculation about his successor there.

Regardless of the outcome, the music world should think seriously about the viability of one conductor running two important institutions simultaneously. A few years ago, the BSO was the most enviable orchestra in America - with a great hall, a fat endowment, an artistically important summer home, a successful pops arm and a much-admired music director.

But that list seems much less impressive now that the orchestra lacks a strong and visible artistic personification. Like it or not, at American orchestras, it's still all about the music director.

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