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Boston takes the measure of its maestro

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When James Levine officially took over in October as the new music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, his arrival was heralded from taxicab roofs to lampposts to newspaper columns. There was also much speculation among music professionals as to Mr. Levine's ability to mesh his BSO responsibilities with those at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he holds the title of music director.

The arguable highlight of Levine's second wave of appearances with the orchestra in Boston is this weekend's concert version of Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman," and it seems a propitious moment to look at the changes he's already effected within the orchestra.

Levine succeeds Seiji Ozawa, who held the post for 29 seasons and has moved to Vienna to become music director of the Vienna State Opera. Meanwhile, Levine retains his relationship with the Metropolitan Opera, where he has shaped the orchestra into one of the world's best during his 30 years at the helm.

The maestro has divided his BSO season into two principal residencies rather than dropping in throughout the season. He is currently in his second block - four weeks this time - and it is already clear, according to Richard Dyer, music critic of the Boston Globe, that Levine is making a difference.

"There are a lot of very distinguished musical figures here [in Boston] who didn't make it a habit of going to Seiji Ozawa's concerts, but they do go to [Levine's]," Mr. Dyer says. "Correspondingly, at the other end of the spectrum the kids are back."

Why should this be the case? There has never been anything splashy about Levine's podium manner - in fact that manner has become increasingly minimalist over the years, and these days he sits to conduct. His strength, apart from an insatiable musical curiosity, has always been in finding ways to fuse all aspects of the performance at hand into an integrated musical whole, and sharing that whole with the public.


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