At a Boston Symphony Orchestra press conference with James Levine yesterday, the always voluble music director had some interesting things to say about where new music fits in running an orchestra. Levine has fashioned the BSO into perhaps the leading major-orchestra exponent of a kind of serious, mostly American modernism—the living composers for the 2008-09 season are Carter, Schuller, Kirchner, Boulez, and Previn (the last with the composer conducting). The BSO hasn't completely ignored other contemporary styles, but, as with Golijov and Adams performances in the past couple seasons, they tend to come in with guest conductors. Levine talked about this, saying that he saw his job as not so much personally ensuring a wide variety of music, but making sure that what is performed receives a fully committed performance, and that it would be irresponsible for him to conduct music that he can't establish a strong personal connection with; better to leave composers he doesn't feel close to—which also include Bruckner and Shostakovich—in the hands of conductors who do. (His impression of a lot of neo-tonal new music is that it has too much "pastel droopiness.")
Levine was asked about the pros and cons of his modernist programming: "The most gratifying aspect is that I have lots of warm feedback"—something he loves about the city. But the downside was more fascinating: "The only sad side of it is, some kinds of music take more time for people to want to hear it, and I can only present it at certain intervals." Levine firmly believes that all music will find an audience as long as there are regular chances to hear it—he made comparisons with the BSO's current project, Berlioz's Les Troyens, which wasn't even fully published until the 1960s; he pointed out with wonder that he made his 1972 BSO debut with what was the Tanglewood premiere of Mahler's 6th. But he also clearly believes that the orchestra should be a specialist in all historical genres of music—much of the discussion was about the various ways the programming is designed to keep all kinds of styles and composers, new and old, in front of the players on a regular basis.
Perhaps because Levine has perhaps been pouring his modernist energies into this summer's staggeringly encyclopedic Elliott Carter festival—or, always a consideration, perhaps because of marketing concerns—the upcoming season is pretty light on even 20th-century repertoire, especially in comparison with the BSO's multi-concert Beethoven-Schoenberg series of two years ago. Levine clearly loves the idea of presenting modernism in such an illuminating context: he talked at some length about all the ideas that pairing was able to encompass, and self-deprecatingly lamented a dearth of similar inspirations. It's in keeping with Levine's new-music enthusiasms, his championing of a generation of composers who, in his view, never found the audience they deserved because listeners were more swayed by the idea that those composers were breaching the historical tradition, rather than continuing it. Levine takes a long-range view of modernism—"Music made a great leap forward with the Beethoven late quartets," he said, starting a parallel tradition that Schoenberg carried on—and there's quite a bit to be said for simply getting the music out there: anyone familiar only with Charles Wuorinen's thorny reputation had a chance to be sensually surprised by last season's BSO performances of the Eighth Symphony. But I later found myself wondering if that focus on context was the cause or result of Levine's comparative neglect of younger composers: one could say, after all, that really new music doesn't need a presented context—we're already living in it.
Levine did say something rather striking, subtly turning a half-century of critical energies on its head. "What can you do," he said, "when there are still people out there trying to sell the idea that unless a piece of music has [a tonal orientation], it's not music?" I never thought of anti-atonalists as actively "selling" their position, but it makes sense; it takes just as much energy to deny something's worth as to proclaim it. Maybe that's why I tend to like both tonal and atonal music with equal enthusiasm—because I'm too lazy to take on an aesthetic belief system that requires actual effort to maintain.