Obéissant aux dieux, / Je pars et je vous aime!

In Li Hao-ku’s 13th-century, Yuan Dynasty drama Chang Boils the Sea, Chang, a wandering scholar, benefits from divine assistance in his wooing of Ch’iung-Lien, the daughter of the Divine Dragon King of the Eastern Sea. As the title promises, Chang eventually triumphs by magically boiling away the sea, eliminating the watery barrier that protects the Dragon King’s palace. A happy ending—except that, as the audience has known all along, neither Chang nor Ch’iung-Lien are who they seem, but rather, former immortals, exiled from heaven for the crime of falling in love. Just as wedding bells seem about to ring, the pair instead abruptly cast off their temporal identities and leave the mortal world.

I thought of Chang and his travails after the announcement yesterday that James Levine was, indeed, resigning as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Interestingly, no one is quite sure just what this means yet: there was already much talk of Levine reducing his role, so a continued presence as some sort of principal-guest-conductor-type doesn’t seem out of the question—and the September 1st resignation date at least hints at the possibility that Levine will have another summer to put a stamp on Tanglewood. (Or, maybe, it was just the most administratively convenient date.) But irregardless, some sort of end is here, and the odd, long-anticipated precipitousness with which it happened would have resonated with those Yuan Dynasty audiences. Levine and the BSO were both made for each other and, somehow, ill-starred. They could repeatedly summon divine magic—a fierce Moses und Aron, stunningly impeccable Wagner, a Les Troyens for the ages—but, just as repeatedly, their romance ran into near-melodramatic complications, of both health and schedule.

Levine’s leave-taking thus seems a little anxious and inconclusive, reflecting the uncertainty that the possibilities opened up by his departure can outbalance the possibilities lost. Or maybe it’s just the way the story fits all too well in what increasingly feels like the advent of a protracted mean season. In that regard, Chang Boils the Sea really did have the happier ending; as the again-immortal Ch’iung-Lien puts it:

Idly we shall watch the Peaches of Immortality redden on the trees,
For we have cast off this World of Dust and its Boundless Bitter Sea.

Cross-posted at The Faster Times.


  1. I want to make two things clear:

    1) I think James Levine is one of the best conductors/interpreters working today.

    2) I never saw Erich Leinsdorf conduct but I don't like any of his recordings that I've heard.

    That being said, Leinsdorf's book Cadenza is a fabulous read and prompted me to form the opinion that Levine's roles with both the BSO and the Met were probably a bad idea.

    Seriously, if you haven't read it, you really should.

  2. Reading my posted comments, I realize my point may not be clear to anyone who hasn't read the book.

    Leinsdorf says in his book that holding both positions simultaneously was way too much and it took its toll on him. If I recall correctly, it was sort of in the “what was I thinking?!” vein.

  3. Richard: The double-job aspect was a concern even as they were announcing the partnership in—wow, 2001, that IS ten years ago now—but everybody looked at Levine's workhorse history and hoped for the best. And for the first two years, it seemed like that wasn't too much to hope for. But, there was no redundancy built into the system, as an engineer might say….

    I remember liking Leinsdorf's book when I read it. I'll say in his defense that it was his record of “A Survivor from Warsaw” that sold me on the piece. I also remember a recording of Irving Fine works that was a lot better than I expected.

  4. [de-lurking] I'll stick up for Leinsdorf's conducting of my favorite opera, Die Tote Stadt, on the old RCA recording. He “gets it”, except for Thielemann in Berlin in 2006 it's the best conducting performance of that opera of the 30 or so perforances I have.

    His Turandot for RCA with maybe the best cast for that opera ever assembled is a flat, lumpen mess however. [/lurking]

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