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Justin Davidson on the Disappearing Conductor James Levine

For seven years, James Levine has been splitting his time three ways: leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra, presiding over the musical side of the Metropolitan Opera, and sitting out large chunks of both institutions’ seasons in alternating bouts of pain and recovery. (More background here.) Something had to give, and, after canceling his remaining concerts with the BSO, he's just announced that he's given up the orchestra job entirely. Technically, he retains his title and duties until next September, but in a world accustomed to multi-year searches, that qualifies as an emergency. He may yet rest for a month then return to the Met in time to conduct the first two installments of Wagner’s “Ring”; all the same, his influence there has already waned and his grip on the company’s future looks hazy. The Met can afford to do what the BSO can’t: hope he shows up, and make alternate plans in case he doesn’t.

Levine has had sciatica, a hand tremor, and surgeries to repair a rotator cuff, remove a kidney, and relieve his back pain. Conducting an orchestra is a surprisingly athletic daily discipline, which is one reason so many maestros remain lithe and youthful as they age. But Levine, who is only 67 but moves with the stiffness of a much older man, looks as if he spent his waking hours manipulating a joystick rather than wielding a conductor’s baton.

The odd thing about his infirmities is that the sounds he draws out of his musicians have such vigorous physicality. He can nudge a crescendo gradually from a barely detectable rumble into a seismic event. He slows certain Wagner passages down to the brink of collapse but keeps them unbearably taut. In Verdi’s more ominous passages, you can hear a leviathan’s slouch. And always, he gets orchestral musicians to phrase like singers, with suppleness and breath.

Whenever he’s returned from convalescence in recent years, Levine has seemed undimmed: You can’t hear a consistent decline. But conducting is a form of leadership, and the current of conviction flowing from him has flickered. In 2009, Boston Globe critic Jeremy Eichler remarked that “the more lingering concern is the state of Levine’s and the BSO’s larger artistic vision.” At the Met, he has gradually relinquished the role of artistic counterweight to the general manager: This is Peter Gelb’s Met now; Levine only works there.

Levine’s latest health crisis has prodded the BSO to hurry along a future it’s been deferring for years. The Met has more leeway to renegotiate a relationship with a musician who’s given it 40 astounding years and who still has plenty to offer on the podium even if he’s no longer in charge. But even if he’s in fine fettle for the anniversary gala on May 1, the time has come to make him conductor laureate for life and hand the keys to someone else.

Photo: Alli Harvey/Getty Images