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No news is bad newsmaking

Robin Pogrebin’s front-page article in last Saturday’s New York Times had the urgency of a shocking revelation about the health of conductor James Levine, artistic director of the Metropolitan Opera and, come this fall, music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. But in fact, there wasn’t a single piece of hard news. It has been known for a decade that the maestro has had a mysterious, occasionally recurring tremor in his left arm and leg and a touch of sciatica. Rumors of Parkinson’s disease have been emphatically denied. Over these 10 years, the tremors, with the help of medication, have not gotten worse.

Levine’s BSO performances have demonstrated no apparent diminishment of energy or quality. He conducts sitting down, but he’s far from the only major conductor to do so. He doesn’t indulge in Bernstein-like aerobics or Ozawa-like ballet. His wants the focus to be on the music, not on his own gestures. And that focus has put his superb musicmaking front and center. Several musicians from the Met orchestra, who refused to be named, claimed that the maestro gets tired toward the end of five- or six-hour Wagner operas. Well, duh! — who wouldn’t? But has it hurt any performances? Some Met musicians claim they can’t see his arm movements in the dark. Maybe the Met pit needs improved lighting. Is this front-page news? Musicians who were happy to be identified, both from the Met and from the BSO, had nothing but praise for Levine’s musicianship, conducting technique, and energy level.

On Sunday, the Boston Globe, which is owned by the New York Times, and which has been skimping on more serious arts coverage lately, had a follow-up story, also on the front page, by Geoff Edgers, with the tasteless, question-begging headline NEW BSO HEAD WILL CONDUCT DESPITE ILLS. On Monday, on the front page of the Times’ Arts section, Anthony Tommasini offered a lengthy commentary on Pogrebin’s piece in which he pointed out that "some of the greatest conducting of the last 100 years" has been by " enfeebled aging and physically maestros." He also mentioned that he had admired some of the very performances the anonymous Met musicians were complaining about. The big question, however, is less about Levine’s health than about why the New York Times decided to give so much attention to this manufactured piece of non-news.

Issue Date: May 7 - 13, 2004
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