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Levine may scale back role with BSO

Ailing conductor’s brother says talks will begin soon

James Levine suffers from back problems. James Levine suffers from back problems. (Stu Rosner)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / February 26, 2011

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Conductor James Levine, after another health setback that forced him to withdraw this week from four major performances, will soon open discussions with the Boston Symphony Orchestra to explore reducing his role, even if this may mean shifting from his post as music director, his brother said.

Tom Levine explained that the eminent conductor, who has suffered from serious back and other problems, feels deeply the tension between his need to tend to his health and his desire to give Boston’s orchestra and its audiences what they deserve from a musical leader.

“With the medical business my brother has had over the past year or two,’’ said Tom Levine, a painter who works closely with his brother, “he’s looking very carefully at perhaps making his working schedule less, to stay healthier longer.

“That may very well affect his time working in Boston . . . I think it’s very likely that my brother’s role here, at least in terms of time, will be less in the future. He loves the orchestra, but at the same time, his ongoing health is of primary importance. To have a schedule that’s too full, and then not be able to do it, is beyond frustrating. It’s not fair to the public, to the orchestra, or to him.’’

Asked whether his brother would be seeking to retain his current position as BSO music director, Tom Levine, in a phone interview, replied, “He’s never been a title person. His relationship and the reality of his work with the orchestra is much more important to him. The title may very well change. My instinct is that it’s not a significant issue for him.’’

BSO managing director Mark Volpe was not available for comment, nor was Levine’s New York-based manager, Ronald Wilford. A BSO source told the Globe, however, that the management, senior board, and the orchestra “are having constructive conversations about James Levine’s ongoing role with the orchestra.’’

Levine’s contract with the orchestra runs through the 2011-2012 season, so discussions about the maestro’s future would be occurring soon anyway, Tom Levine said.

“It’s not something that has come out of the woodwork,’’ he said. “Jim has one more year in his contract, so it’s time to talk about these things: title, schedule, responsibilities, etcetera.’’

Tom Levine said he did not know whether his brother’s current contract had been officially signed. The Boston Globe reported last April that Levine had no signed contract with the BSO.

“That’s between Wilford and the board,’’ he said. Given how far in advance musical seasons are planned, any shifts discussed may not go into effect until 2012 or beyond.

Levine, 67, is also music director of the Metropolitan Opera, and holding both posts has contributed to his heavy workload. Most notably, last fall included a single day on which Levine led a matinee performance of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold’’ at the Met, followed by an evening performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony in Boston. According to Tom Levine, however, his brother looks at his two schedules as a cumulative whole.

“Where he has intense work, he has intense work, and where he has a break, he has a break. It does not have to do with the location,’’ said Tom Levine. “As the schedule is looked at in more detail, it will affect both Boston and the Met.’’

Levine’s current round of BSO cancellations came after an attempt to alleviate pain that the conductor has been experiencing from a nerve on the left side of his lower back, his brother said.

“A few days before he came to Boston he had a procedure where he had an injection,’’ Tom Levine said. “He was in great form that night, great form the next day, but then had a little reaction to it, which I believe they medicated.’’

When the conductor arrived in Boston this week for rehearsals, a second reaction occurred.

“He had a lot of pain that was very unexpected,’’ Tom Levine said. “When I got here on Thursday he was profoundly uncomfortable, and I think he very wisely did not conduct.’’

At issue, according to Tom Levine, was also the balance of the various medications Levine’s doctors have recommended as he recovers from back surgeries as well as a previous kidney surgery.

“My understanding is that not all of the medicines cooperate with each other,’’ he said. “And now the highest priority is for his doctors to make sure that everything is in proper balance.’’

There is no word yet on whether Levine will be well enough to conduct next week’s program, which includes the world premiere of a new violin concerto by Harrison Birtwistle.

“I don’t have any idea about that,’’ said Tom Levine. “He’s optimistic and I’m optimistic, always.’’

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com