Able conductors step in for those beset by illness, injury


Critic's Corner//Music


The new theme song in the orchestral world must be: "It's Hard out There for a Conductor."

James Levine, celebrated music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera, fell onstage at the end of a concert in Boston on March 1 and apparently tore a rotator cuff. He has had to cancel the next few months of performances, leaving quite a large vacancy for both institutions to fill.

Last month, Seiji Ozawa, music director of the Vienna State Opera and Levine's predecessor at the Boston Symphony, was told by doctors that he had to cancel the remainder of his entire 2006 season after a bronchial infection and a bout of shingles that had sidelined him in January.

Just about the time of Levine's unfortunate tumble, two more hit the sick list.

Kurt Masur, principal conductor of the London Philharmonic, took ill from a viral infection in the middle of a concert in Dublin, Ireland, with that ensemble and couldn't finish. That led him to cancel at least part of this month's U.S. tour with the Londoners.

And Christoph von Dohnanyi, former music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, got sick -- bronchial infection, apparently -- before he could start rehearsals for a guest-conducting stint at the New York Philharmonic.

Meanwhile, closer to home, Yuri Temirkanov pulled out of this month's engagements with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, distraught after the death of a close friend last month in St. Petersburg, Russia. He also canceled dates with the Boston Symphony late this month and early next, which would have been his first concerts with that orchestra in 12 years.

Cancellations are inevitable in the performing arts, of course, and the good news is that there is almost always an able talent ready and willing to step in and save the downbeat. Sometimes, stars are born this way (see Leonard Bernstein's biography).

Still, any unexpected change causes many a ripple, many a concern. The situation is especially troubling here, since, unlike his several previous cancellations, Temirkanov's absence is not attributed to physical problems. It's harder to fathom.

Given that this is his final season as music director of the BSO, and that he was due to spend only nine weeks in Baltimore anyway, the loss of four of those weeks really hurts. (For those concerned about the financial side of this, Temirkanov is not paid for performances that he cancels.)

Even if he does return for the remaining three, in late May and early June, he may not enjoy the welcome he surely would have received had everything proceeded as planned this season.

Each time he has canceled a performance here, he has risked losing a little more of the public's respect, patience and good will. He has risked dampening the relationship with his musicians, too.

The last time Temirkanov led the BSO was on a remarkably spirited, successful tour in Europe in October. On several occasions during that trip, he assured me he would honor his remaining commitments to the orchestra.

I do not believe he would break those commitments this month, or others elsewhere, on a whim. From what I've been able to pick up through various channels, it's clear that Temirkanov is going through a very tough time.

Given what a private person he has always been, I'm not sure we'll ever know all the details of what has caused him to withdraw, if not from the world, from a good part of it. I just hope he opens the door soon, makes music soon -- and makes it here again.

If there's a beneficial side to Temirkanov's many absences in the past few years, it has been the opportunity to hear conductors who might not otherwise have appeared with the BSO.

This week, we'll get to check out the abilities of French-born Ludovic Morlot, an assistant conductor at the Boston Symphony. He is the one who stepped in to save the New York Philharmonic's day when Dohnanyi canceled, earning high marks for his work. He'll lead music by Schumann, Mozart and Stravinsky.

The first Temirkanov-less program this month was ably taken by BSO associate conductor Andrew Constantine, making his unexpected debut on a main classical subscription series.

(Next week, quite sensibly, the BSO will just let concertmaster Jonathan Carney do the cue-giving for an all-Mozart program from his seat in the orchestra.)

Last week, British-born James Judd, music director of the New Zealand Symphony, replaced Temirkanov for the fifth time in two years. He's never had to change a program, never had a problem collaborating with guest soloists Temirkanov had engaged. Above all, Judd has made first-rate music on each occasion.

The chemistry he has with the BSO invariably looks and sounds great. What he achieved with the players in Strauss' Ein Heldenleben during this substitute gig was particularly compelling.

Somebody at the BSO ought to think about offering Judd the job of principal guest conductor. He's earned it.

And, at the very least, it would give him even more reason to come to the rescue if Temirkanov cancels again.

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