Botstein is the music director and principal conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra (ASO) and conductor laureate of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra (JSO), where he served as music director and principal conductor from 2003-2010. He is also the founder and co-Artistic Director of the Bard Music Festival. He is a member of the Board of Directors of The After-School Corporation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding educational opportunities for all students. He also serves as the Board Chairman of the Central European University. In July 2016, Austria’s Grafenegg Festival appointed Botstein artistic director of the Grafenegg Campus and Academy, effective in 2018.
Botstein became the youngest (or possibly second youngest) college president in U.S. history at age 23, serving from 1970 to 1975 at the now-defunct Franconia College, after which he was named president of Bard College.
As music director of the American Symphony Orchestra, Botstein emerged as a significant proponent of "thematic programming," which attempts to assemble concert programs having a common theme grounded in literature, music history, or art. He also focused the ASO's programming on the performance of infrequently-performed works by major composers and the best examples of works by lesser-known composers, with a particular emphasis on U.S. premiere performances, many of which have been recorded by the ASO for the first time. In addition to the orchestra's main concert series at Carnegie Hall, Botstein inaugurated the Bard Music Festival with the participation of the ASO, a summer series which focuses on one composer each summer for an intensive series of concerts, lectures, and panel discussions. He also presents a series called "Classics Declassified," devoting each program to a piece from the standard orchestral repertory. Botstein lectures about the piece for about an hour, using the orchestra to provide illustrations for his talk, then performs the entire piece, then opens the floor to questions from the audience directed at him and at members of the orchestra. This series, originally presented at Columbia University's Miller Theater, proved so popular that it was moved to Symphony Space for the 2007–2008 season. He also inaugurated an important series of recordings of neglected masterpieces with the Telarc label, using the ASO and a variety of European orchestras. In addition to his work with the ASO and JSO, Botstein has performed as a guest conductor with, among many others, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, New York City Opera, Los Angeles Philharmonic, BBC Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, and NDR Symphony Orchestra. The Los Angeles Times called 2013’s Los Angeles Philharmonic performance under Botstein “the all-around most compelling performance of anything I’ve heard all summer at the Bowl.” In fall 2013, Botstein also conducted the Sinfónica Juvenil de Caracas in Venezuela and Japan, making him the first non-Venezuelan conductor invited by El Sistema to conduct on a tour. Many live recordings of his performances, including the prestigious operas performed every summer during the Bard SummerScape festival, are widely available on compact disc and on Internet sites such as iTunes, Amazon, and Spotify.
Botstein’s many books, essays, and articles on music and culture have earned him a reputation as a leading musicologist. His essays in the Princeton University Press series of books devoted to composers featured during the annual Bard Music Festival exemplify his efforts to address the complex social, political, and artistic influences and context of his subject. Of his recent essay in this series, on Jean Sibelius, the Times Literary Supplement wrote that Sibelius’s “critical reputation is epitomized by Leon Botstein.” He has also written extensively about music and culture in 19th-century Vienna, Jewish European culture, and modernism. His book Judentum und Modernität: Essays zur Rolle der Juden in der deutschen und österreichischen Kultur, 1848–1938 was written in German and has been translated into Russian.
Botstein’s unique position as a leading music scholar, performer, and founder and coartistic director of the Bard Music Festival have enabled him to have an extraordinary impact on both music scholarship and performance. As the Wall Street Journal’s Barrymore Laurence Scherer observes, “the Bard Music Festival…no longer needs an introduction. Under the provocative guidance of the conductor-scholar Leon Botstein, it has long been one of the most intellectually stimulating of all American summer festivals and frequently is one of the most musically satisfying. Each year, through discussions by major scholars and illustrative concerts often programmed to overflowing, Bard audiences have investigated the oeuvre of a major composer in the context of the society, politics, literature, art and music of his times.”
2009 - Awarded a Carnegie Academic Leadership Award. The Carnegie Corporation annually chooses exceptional leaders of American higher education who have demonstrated outstanding leadership in the realms of curricular innovation, reform of K-12 education and the promotion of strong links between their institution and their local communities.
Botstein has greatly extended Bard’s reach internationally, leading the creation of new programs on several continents. In partnership with Saint Petersburg State University, Bard established in 1997 the first liberal arts college program in Russia, Smolny College, which offers dual degrees from Saint Petersburg State University and Bard. In 1998, the Institute for International Liberal Education (IILE)] was formed at Bard to advance the theory and practice of international liberal arts education. Bard’s other international programs include the Al-Quds Bard Partnership, a collaboration in Jerusalem between Bard College and Al-Quds University that was established in 2008 to improve the Palestinian education system; the International Human Rights Exchange (IHRE); the Program in International Education (PIE); Bard College Berlin: A Liberal Arts University; and joint programs with American University of Central Asia and Central European University.
In February 2009, Botstein was accused by Joel Kovel of terminating Kovel from his position as professor at Bard in retaliation for the latter's political views, an accusation which Botstein denied.
Botstein's written work includes Jefferson's Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture, in which he argues that high school-level education after the tenth grade should be abolished in favor of a national early college system, as well as several other books in the fields of musicology and education. He is editor of The Musical Quarterly and a frequent contributor to periodicals focusing on music and education.
In May 2014, as part of Holocaust 70, the Hungarian government’s official program to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust in Hungary, Botstein was a guest conductor at the Liszt Academy Concert Centre in Budapest for “Through the Valley of the Shadow,” a concert in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.
(2016) "The Election Was About Racism Against Barack Obama". TIME. December 13, 2016.
(2016) "Why the Next President Should Forgive All Student Loans". TIME. August 12, 2016.
(2016) Botstein, Leon. "Walther Rathenau (1867-1922): Bildung, Prescription, Prophecy". In Picard, Jacques. Makers of Jewish Modernity: Thinkers, Artists, Leaders, and the World They Made. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN9780691164236.
(2014) "The SAT is Part Hoax, Part Fraud". TIME. 183 (11): 17. March 24, 2014.
(2014) "How an Anti-Semitic Composer Created 'Kol Nidre' and 'Moses'". The Jewish Daily Forward. March 24, 2014.
(2013) "The Marginalization of Music: The American Example". The Musical Quarterly. 96 (2): 169–77. doi:10.1093/musqtl/gdt020.
(2013) Botstein, Leon. "The Precision of Poetry and the Exactness of Pure Science: Nabokov, Stravinsky, and the Reader as Listener". In Levitz, Tamara. Igor Stravinsky and His World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN9780691159874.
(2013) "Words and Music: The Legacy of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925-2012)". The Musical Quarterly. 96 (1): 1–13. doi:10.1093/musqtl/gdt008].
(2012) Botstein, Leon. "A Grand and Glorious Noise: Circus Music in America". In Ames, Kenneth. The Circus and the City. New York: Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture. pp. 256–304. ISBN978-0300187472.
(2012) Botstein, Leon. "Beyond the Conceits of the Avant-Garde: Saint-Saëns, Romain Rolland, and the Musical Culture of the Nineteenth Century". In Passler, Jann. Camille Saint-Saëns and His World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. pp. 370–404. ISBN9780691155555.
(2011) Botstein, Leon. "Old Masters: Jean Sibelius and Richard Strauss in the Twentieth Century". In Grimley, Daniel. Jean Sibelius and His World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. pp. 256–304. ISBN978-0-691-15281-3.
(2011) Botstein, Leon. "The Eye of the Needle: Music as History after the Age of Recording". In Fulcher, Jane. The Oxford Handbook to the New Cultural History of Music. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 256–304. ISBN0-19-534186-4.
(2010) Botstein, Leon. "Alban Berg and the Memory of Modernism". In Hailey, Christopher. Alban Berg and His World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. pp. 299–343. ISBN978-0-691-14856-4.
(2008) Botstein, Leon. "Beyond Death and Evil: Prokofiev's Spirituality and Christian Science". In Morrison, Simon. Sergey Prokofiev and His World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. pp. 530–561. ISBN978-0-691-13895-4.
(2008) "The Unsung Success of Live Classical Music". Wall Street Journal. October 3, 2008.
^Profile: Leon Botstein, Hadassah Magazine, "Botstein is a proud secular Jew not ambivalent or defensive about his identity. In I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl (Jewish Lights), he writes: “In Judaism, learning is prayer, for it celebrates the human capacity for language and thought.” He waxes nostalgic for the days of “exceptional Jewry,” arguing that “Jews have entered the indistinguishable middle class…. We are no longer the people of the book; we are a people of ordinary vulgarity. The real tragedy of American Jewry—and Israel—is that we’ve used privilege to become absolutely ordinary.”"