Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Shi-Yeon Sung saves the day

James Levine found himself incapable of conducting last nights Boston Symphony Orchestra concert featuring Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Mozart’s Requiem. Shi-Yeon Sung, (his assistant conductor) had to step in for him at the last minute, as Levine will have to undergo immediate back surgery, and will be out of commission until early December. A link to the article in the New York Times can be seen here Back Surgery.

This new health issue forming on top of all of the other health problems he has had recently (most notably a cancerous kidney had to be removed, he tore his rotator cuff and had some ongoing hand tremors) are cause for concern. He holds two high profile conducting positions and is the highest paid conductor in the United States, earning over $3 million a year - replacing him would be no easy feat.

Back to the main point here though, stepping in at the last minute like Shi-Yeon Sung did could be a defining moment in her conducting career. Leonard Bernstein did a similar thing while he was the assistant conductor with the New York Philharmonic by stepping in for Bruno Walther at the last minute, making headlines around the world, and truly establishing himself as a respectable conductor.

This is not the first time Shi-Yeon Sung has stepped in for Levine, though. Back in 2008 when he was having his kidney operation, she stepped in then too. This, of course, is her job, but maybe if she does well enough in the coming weeks, she too will get the worlds attention.

I expect more articles such as this will be surfacing in the days to come.


Ivan Sifrim said...
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Ivan Sifrim said...


Your post was insightful and made me think of how easily the classical music performer can be replaced.

I know of a string quartet that books all its gigs without knowing who the performers are going to be. That is, they have an extensive list of players they use to fill the spots; they call their list until the spots are all filled. Once they find a performer that can make the date, they email the scores in pdf format. The performers meet for the very first time while tuning and discuss the logistics about the next 3 hours. No one in the audience can tell the difference. The majority of their gigs are weddings, which do not require the quartet to be the center of attention. What then makes them the string quartet that they are? Merely the legal business name? Granted the quartet might rethink their structure were they to only get gigs in which they are the center of attention.

The reality is that most people experience live classical music ensembles at weddings or other “background-noise situations”. This "replacing structure" favors performers' employment, but what does it say about the value we place on the performer?