Prelude to a maestro's debut Levine prepares way for BSO's fall season By Geoff Edgers, Globe Staff, 1/19/2004 The managing director came to the maestro last Monday. The list of flutists was down to seven. Would he listen to the remaining candidates play? "Uh-uh," James Levine said. "Whittle it down to three or four, and then I'll come." Time was precious, Levine knew. He has led the Metropolitan Opera for more than 30 years, and jet-setted around the world with the Three Tenors. Last week, though, came with special demands. On paper, Levine was taking his regular, weeklong guest conducting slot with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. But he knew this was the last time he would be in town before taking over the music directorship of the BSO in the fall. His schedule was packed. There were three concerts, a press conference to announce the 2004-2005 season, and a photo shoot for a cover of "Opera News." But the auditions weighed heavily. The orchestra needed to replace former principal flutist Jacques Zoon, whose seat had remained empty for two years. And it needed to do it soon. Zoon's appointment in 1997 had been overdue, ending what was known in the symphony world as "flutegate," the seven-year wait to replace Doriot Anthony Dwyer, who had left in 1990. Levine also wanted to pick a pair of assistant conductors, another important position left empty during the two-year wait for Levine. For the musicians on the hiring committee, the flute auditions had special significance. "It's a major position, sitting right there in the middle of the orchestra," said John Ferrillo, the principal oboe player. "This is the person who is going to be sitting next to me for the next 20 years." A BSO tryout is not a typical job interview. It starts with the hundreds of musicians who mail recordings, as the orchestra's selection committee eventually listens to 35 CDs. Next, the committee decided to hear, in person, 16 musicians. By Monday, the number was down to seven. By Tuesday, it had grown to nine. The audition would be, as always, shrouded in secrecy, as players, many from the world's leading orchestras, paid their own freight to audition anonymously for this jury of 12 orchestra members. One by one, the hopefuls were ushered through the side door of Symphony Hall, set up in a rehearsal room, and called to the stage. A canvas screen hung from the ceiling in the center of the stage. On one side, the orchestra committee sat; on the other, the musician. Each candidate played the same passages of Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven. No conversation traveled across the screen. No discussion of playing took place among committee members. All votes were taken by secret ballot. By dinnertime Tuesday, five players were out. Levine came down when the pizza was delivered and, as auditions resumed, he took a seat with the committee members on the stage to hear the remaining four. Ray Wellbaum, the orchestra manager, watched Levine, noticing how he let the players run the show. When he offered a suggestion, it was largely about process. Should they hear another piece? How long should each flutist play? That hands-off style, driven by confidence in his orchestra, is nothing new. That's how he has run the Met. When Levine isn't available, the orchestra selection committee is even authorized to pick a player without him. When he is participating though -- and the maestro wasn't about to miss such an important audition -- it is Levine who makes the final choice. The committee makes a recommendation. Levine doesn't expect they'll disagree. "They want the same thing I want," Levine said later. "They want the best player. They want the orchestra to get better." So, Levine devoted his week to transforming the BSO, which had been criticized at times during the latter years of Seiji Ozawa's 29-year tenure as being undisciplined and unfocused. Ozawa was a showman, from the way he physically moved on stage to his public appearances at Red Sox games. Levine said it is unlikely he'll have time to go to Fenway. Keeping a room at the old Ritz-Carlton, he shuttled back-and-forth in the BSO's Lincoln Town Car. In the mornings, Levine threw his coat off and headed straight down the hall for the BSO's music library. It is a single room of modest size, stacked, floor to ceiling, with more than a century's worth of scores. He scoured the music, deciding which version of a Schoenberg piece to use next year, which to discard. Marty Burlingame, the BSO's principal librarian, is on sabbatical this year, but he came in just for Levine's week. Ozawa rarely ventured into the library during his tenure. "Most conductors don't," said Burlingame. "But Jimmy loves this room. He's like a kid in a candy store." Each day developed its own rhythms. There were the double rehearsals of the program the BSO would perform later in the week. There were meetings with artistic administrator Anthony Fogg. And between, after a nap or a sandwich, Levine sat at the piano in his dressing room, pounding out Schubert. He needed to practice for a Carnegie Hall concert in February. It is a loud piece, and downstairs, orchestra members running the auditions contemplated asking him to pipe down. Tuesday afternoon, a night of auditions approaching, Levine reflected on his week. Was he exhausted? Could he make it through the week? The maestro, now 60, shrugged off the schedule. "It might not be a typical week, but a busy week is typical," he said, sitting in his dressing room. "Most of what I do is a lot of work and a lot of fun. For the most part, if you work hard enough, the result is exhilarating." They were down to three flute players on Wednesday. In the late afternoon, after the BSO's rehearsal, the finalists were told to play a Mozart flute quartet with the BSO's chamber players. Within a couple of hours, the choice was clear. Instead of merely a secret ballot, Levine suggested each committee member voice an opinion. They told him they wanted to hire this woman, this flutist. He agreed. When it was over, they had their choice. The name of the flutist might not be announced for months. She has to deal with her existing contract with another orchestra, and negotiate with the BSO. Levine's week was hardly done. During a rehearsal, Levine sat patiently at the front of the stage, keeping time with his right hand, emphasizing sections with wiggles of his left index finger. "Rich as you can and hot," he told the players at one point, before crooning his point, "La diiiiii, la diiiii." On Thursday, Levine attended a press conference to announce his first season, throwing a maroon sport jacket over the sweaty, untucked golf shirt he wore through rehearsal. The room applauded as Levine entered. He charmed everyone with his answers, rolling and extemporaneous explanations of his musical interests. He was stumped only once, when a member of the press asked him about whether he favored the Patriots or Indianapolis Colts in the upcoming playoff game. BSO managing director Mark Volpe, sitting next to Levine, leaned over to tell him to go with the Pats. It was no use. "I can't say a word about that," Levine said. During the concerts Thursday night, Friday afternoon, and Saturday night, Levine wore his tux as he led the orchestra in performances of Mozart, Dvorak, and Elliott Carter. He sat on stage, his back hurting. But he didn't have time for much rest. After the shows, he was back in the hall, watching five candidates compete for two assistant conductor positions. Like Zoon's position, the assistant posts have been empty for some time, in anticipation of Levine's arrival. They aren't as high profile, but they're important, particularly because of the many demands on Levine's time. If he is ill, one of these conductors could be called to fill in for him. They will also be around Boston when he's at the Met, or touring the world. Friday night, each candidate led a small ensemble from the New England Conservatory. On Saturday, they returned, playing Berlioz's "Symphony Fantastique" with the full BSO. By yesterday, two candidates had been chosen, Ludwig Morlot and Jens Georg Bachmann. So, it had been a productive week, a chance to bond over pizza, talk more about programs, get used to being in charge of the BSO, and settle some important positions. After rehearsal one day, Ferrillo, a member of the Met orchestra under Levine before coming to Boston, walked up to the maestro. "In the 13 years we were together at the Met, I never heard anything like the last couple days," Ferrillo told him of the flute auditions. "It's just such a wonderful feeling to have it resolved."