MTT: Is he the one to replace Levine?


LENOX - To listen to the chatter around Tanglewood, you'd think Michael Tilson Thomas had already been anointed the Boston Symphony Orchestra's music director.

Wait a minute, people. MTT (as he is known in the music kingdom) is a fine conductor, and he brought energy and inspiration to Tanglewood during his two-week stay. But there is still someone named James Levine in the picture.

He's still in charge until he or the BSO, or both, decide to part ways.

And that decision, a BSO spokesman reaffirmed, will not come until September, when it is determined whether Levine can return to duty and, if so, on what kind of schedule.

The wildfire of rumor and speculation is kindled by a legitimate concern. Players and listeners feel a vacuum at the top. The BSO artistic staff has effectively plugged the holes in the conducting schedule, and on the whole the season has been going well.

But the plugs, like the one at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, are temporary. A permanent solution must come.

MTT's attraction is unmistakable.

He not only took the BSO and Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra through stimulating concerts but, more than any other living conductor, he is the embodiment of BSO and Tanglewood tradition.

In the keynote address at the music center's opening exercises this month, he invoked that tradition, recalling Koussevitzky's vision in founding Tanglewood.

"Being here always focuses my thoughts about music, just as it did over 40 years ago when I was a fellow," he said. "It makes me think about what music fundamentally is: a dialogue, or sometimes even a wrestling match between the two essential sides of ourselves - instinct and intelligence."

He went on: "Every musician must find his own balance between these forces in his own way and inside of his own skin.

Tanglewood is a great place to consider that search."

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Whether consciously or unconsciously, the words and the charge to the students - "We're all in this together" - echo sentiments spoken by Koussevitzky and Leonard Bernstein on similar occasions. Tilson Thomas is, in fact, the closest thing we have to a Bernstein today: conductor, composer, pianist, teacher, master of the media, and advocate for music.

It was not always so. Tilson Thomas admits he was a know-itall as a Tanglewood student in 1968 and 1969 and associate conductor and principal guest conductor during the next five years.

Like Bernstein, he made a sensational New York debut as a lastminute substitute for an ailing music director (in his case, William Steinberg).

In a 1984 return to the Tanglewood podium, Tilson Thomas told me: "I don't know how I could have survived, how I could have managed to do the things that I did at that age as rapidly as I did them, and with as much midnight oil in preparing pieces the night before very important performance opportunities, without a very strong sense of ego - you know, a feeling of 'I am doing this and I am meant to do this and I am going to do it.' " The former wunderkind has matured. But is he right for the BSO, even if the BSO comes to think he is right for it?

Since Seiji Ozawa left, Tanglewood has been without an active music director for five of nine years. In 2002, Ozawa's last year, he put in only one weekend.

The next two years were an interregnum. Levine came on board in 2005 but missed most of 2008 and is now out for all of 2010.

The BSO and Tanglewood can't go on like this. But talk of a successor is premature, according to managing director Mark Volpe.

Levine serves under an unwritten agreement in which he is paid mainly by the performance, Volpe said through the spokesman. But Volpe's concern now, the spokesman said, is the conductor's convalescence, not a replacement. In 15 years with the San Francisco Symphony, Tilson Thomas has done great things, including freshening the repertoire and launching educational initiatives (some Bernsteininspired). Would he be willing to move to another orchestra and city? Or would he prefer to remain and continue building a legacy important to music in America?

Nobody is saying. But it would be surprising if, during his two weeks here, there weren't some what- if conversations with the BSO. It never hurts to have a Plan B.

Levine, 67, and Tilson Thomas, 65, are different kinds of conductors. But until Levine began suffering major physical setbacks - four in his six years as director, plus an ongoing leg tremor - he and the BSO seemed to be entering a new golden age.

Programming and performances took on a new range and depth.

A 10-hour back operation such as Levine underwent in April is serious business. It is not an automatic disqualification from returning to the podium. Herbert von Karajan spent his last decade as a conductor in crippling back pain. Other conductors have carried on under similar handicaps.

MTT would offer charisma, vitality and a new face for an old institution. He would provide a link with the past and close a circle. But let's not bury James Levine yet. He's still the boss - and a great conductor.


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