Concertgoers take change in stride

Ticket sales are up. Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms are on the schedule. And nobody’s worried about whether the maestro will make it.

This is the post-James Levine Boston Symphony Orchestra, an organization embarking on a season without both a music director and the lingering doubts that marked the final years of Levine’s time in Boston.

“I think people are pretty excited frankly,’’ said Marjorie Arons-Barron, a subscriber for decades. “There was such uncertainty over the last couple of years. Levine, when he had his health, really brought the orchestra to a level that was quite extraordinary. He had a chemistry and an energy and an ability to communicate. But he was really dogged by his health issues and the uncertainty that that created. We felt sorry for Levine, but also felt, here we go again with another year of is he here or isn’t he?’’


Still, just a year ago the BSO’s season began with hope. Levine, seven months removed from his latest string of health-related cancellations, returned to the podium with a thunderous all-Wagner program.

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

If only it could have lasted. Before long, the brilliant but frail conductor was on the sidelines, on the way to his eventual resignation as music director of the BSO.

Levine fatigue, as BSO leaders call it, led to a gradual decline of ticket sales last year.

“People were discouraged and certainly the numbers reflected that,’’ said Mark Volpe, the BSO’s managing director. “Anecdotally, I’ve been here 14 years and people recognize me, and it was clear, even on my block, I couldn’t walk my dog without two or three people stopping me about Levine.’’

This year, says Volpe, there’s a sense of optimism about the schedule, which features guest conductors as the BSO begins its search for a music director. There are beloved veterans such as Bernard Haitink as well as a rumored potential candidate for the music director job, Andris Nelsons, who makes his subscription debut leading the orchestra in January with a program that features Haydn, Turnage, and Strauss. It was Nelsons who stepped in at the last minute in March, when Levine couldn’t conduct the BSO’s performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony at Carnegie Hall.


“Look, we’re all mortal,’’ says Volpe. “Artists get sick. Volcanoes keep people from flying across the country. Programs and artists are subject to change. I do think there’s a reasonable expectation that the artist you’ve engaged or program you’ve assembled should happen. There got to be, at a certain point, a lack of credibility. No comment on Jim’s artistry - he remains one of the great musical minds of our time - but the uncertainty was wearing on the public.’’

The BSO declined to provide detailed numbers on ticket sales and subscriptions for the upcoming season. But the orchestra did say that single ticket sales are up 15 percent over last year’s number.

Ron John, a real estate broker who has subscribed for three decades, thinks he knows why.

“This year is a particularly good year for guest conductors,’’ he said, naming Haitink, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, Kurt Masur, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Nelsons. “The programming is excellent and I know that Levine was largely responsible for that.’’

There are, in fact, three programs Levine created that remain a part of the season, a pair in November to be conducted by former BSO assistant conductor Ludovic Morlot and a February series with Masur conducting “Missa Solemnis.’’


Arons-Barron said that having so many older, name conductors on the slate makes her not worry about the BSO starting this season without a music director.

“And I think people are really excited about a thoughtful and methodical search for the person who is the best to take the orchestra into 21st-century excellence,’’ she said.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at