I’ve been going to BSO Open Rehearsal for some 50 years at Tanglewood and can’t remember ever having as alienating an experience as I and over 1,000 other attendees had Wednesday night at Symphony Hall.
According to the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) website, “Open Rehearsals are offered at a discounted price from the actual performance ticket prices . . . Patrons should be aware that these performances are working rehearsals in which the conductor may stop the orchestra to rehearse specific passages of the music that the conductor considers to require more refinement. Conductors may choose to repeat or omit movements or works.”
I’ve been going to BSO Open Rehearsal for some 50 years at Tanglewood and can’t remember ever having as alienating an experience as I and over 1,000 other attendees had Wednesday night at Symphony Hall, watching James Levine rehearse Mahler’s Ninth. This is the symphony that Mahler wrote after one of his daughters had died and he himself was near death. I was interested to hear Levine conduct the music, how he would work on it, what he would tell the musicians.
Mr. Levine, whose deteriorating health was painfully apparent, made his way unsteadily to the podium where he tried to make himself comfortable in his swivel seat. Although he had access to the same microphone with which other conductors have addressed the audience, Levine ignored it for most of the evening. He greeted the audience, then rehearsed the approximately half-hour long first movement with a few stops. Then he called for an early intermission that lasted half an hour.
After orchestra and audience reconvened for the last three movements of the symphony, there was little music—perhaps 5 minutes? Mr. Levine chose to lecture on details of dynamics and character to the players—at least that was what I was able to make out from my tenth row orchestra seat.
Onstage, orchestra members fidgeted, stared into space, or surreptitiously talked with one another—but they were paid to be sitting there. The paying audience began to leave—first old and infirm people, then impatient students, then whole rows emptied out. My companion and I stayed till the end, hoping against hope to hear some more music. The family in front of me—tourists from Italy—hadn’t gone to the BSO website and had bought four tickets at $25 apiece.
“Is this what open rehearsal means in America?” they asked.
Instead of a concert, they and the rest of us were treated to a kind of reality show: the spectacle of a gravely ill man abusing his paying audience. My musician son argues that Levine has every right to run rehearsals as he sees fit; his goal is a good opening night; it’s management’s decision—not the conductor’s—to transform a rehearsal into a profit-making venture. Their only mistake was not making the specifics of this clear to ticket-buyers at the box office.
Huge mistake, I think. Concertgoers who had anticipated an unusual evening didn’t hear much music. Nor did they hear what the Maestro had to say. We witnessed what has become an embarrassment to Boston: an extraordinary gifted but perverse, petty dictator protected by a powerful institution.
Judging from the rush to the doors and the comments I overheard, those of us who stuck it out to the end were unforgiving, particularly when the Maestro reached the end of his inaudible directions to the orchestra, swiveled to face the audience, and grinned. It was a cold night. We will all think again before buying tickets to an Open Rehearsal. And give the Italians a refund!
Helen Epstein is the author of several books on Kindle about performers and cultural life.