One of the major musical events of the season, Opera Boston’s New England premiere of Paul Hindemith’s Cardillac, was upstaged by the depressing announcement by BSO managing director Mark Volpe, just before the first of the BSO’s four performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, that James Levine was not going to conduct because “ill effects” from continuing treatment for his ongoing back problems, combined with a “viral infection,” had put him out of commission yet again — a decision made only moments before the concert the maestro had been rehearsing here all week. And that after he’d bowed out of conducting the previous Saturday’s Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. Stepping into the lion’s den at Symphony Hall, after leading one rehearsal earlier in the week, was young assistant conductor Sean Newhouse.
BSO assistant conductors have not had the best luck this season. Poor Marcelo Lehninger’s first assignment, last October, was to conduct the unconductable Pinchas Zukerman in Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. And now 30-year-old Newhouse had to lead one of the most complex works in the symphonic repertoire, Mahler’s last completed symphony, which, given its profound sense of retrospect, of nostalgia, of loss, probably shouldn’t be conducted by anyone under, say, 49 (Mahler’s age when he wrote it), and by no one at all without sufficient preparation. (Although in 1984, 33-year-old Kent Nagano became an overnight star when, with no rehearsal, he replaced Seiji Ozawa at the BSO in this very symphony.) The final Adagio, Mahler’s resigned and sublime farewell, did at last cohere, with real emotional conviction, and the audience cheered Newhouse’s effort. But till then, just about everything was erratic: tempos (sluggish or rushed), ensemble, dynamic balances, coordination between conductor and players, connections between movements (even between episodes), with little sense of a continuous whole, the through-line of a life lived — a central quality in Levine’s profound 2007 performance.
Levine then cancelled his remaining Mahler concerts. On Saturday, the Boston Globe’s Jeremy Eichler reported that, in a phone interview, Levine’s brother Tom had indicated to him that the maestro’s role at the BSO was about to be renegotiated, in favor of fewer performances and a possible change of his title. For the BSO, this latest cancellation may have been the last straw.
UPDATE:Levine resigns: Poor health forces the BSO’s first American director to give up his position
But Cardillac was also news. Hindemith’s 1926 opera, based on an E.T.A. Hoffmann story (“Das Fräulein von Scuderi”) about a 17th-century Parisian goldsmith who murders his customers so that he can take back the works of art he’s created, is a fascinating and mysterious work. Hindemith’s obsessive polyphony (two years before Weill’s Threepenny Opera, whose fugal writing clearly owes something to Hindemith) refuses to “illustrate” the events on stage, as in some minimalist music (though this complex, even jazzy score is far from minimal); yet the forward drive of the intertwining musical lines creates its own dramatic intensity. Opera Boston’s Gil Rose led a riveting musical performance.