If you look at me and see that I want more," James Levine told the Boston Symphony Orchestra last Thursday at the rehearsal for their concert that evening, "it’s not dynamics, but more juice, more character, more tone, more personality." This would be Levine’s final concert as BSO "music director designate"; next season, he takes charge of the BSO full time. But during the last half-hour of the rehearsal (the part the press was allowed to attend) and at the press conference that followed, he sounded like someone who had already taken over and who wanted to change things. Character and personality, "juice" and "tone," rather than just playing loud — these were not the qualities of the orchestra under its previous music director.
During the rehearsal, Levine reminded the players, kindly, how to play triplets: not flat but with a lively stress on the first note. "Grab the string," he told the string players, "get a real bite out of it. Every bar should have a crescendo of feeling." "Please, please do this, really get that pianissimo." "Couldn’t we make a rule — which we’ll probably have to break: when you finish a note before a rest, don’t play into the rest." From the first violins he wanted "more bow — it’s just to make the sound more vocal, freer. Sound like whoever your favorite singer is [Levine is also the music director of the Metropolitan Opera], or any instrument that breathes." When he wasn’t mouthing the notes along with the orchestra, he punctuated the playing with praise: "That’s marvelous! . . . Beautiful! . . . Excellent!"
At the press conference announcing the 2004-2005 season, the maestro answered the questions he was asked, clearly, substantially, even apologizing for letting his explanations go on too long. He wanted, he said, "to give audiences new ways of hearing relationships between pieces," whether through "high contrasts" or "subtle similarities" — to play "the best music, music I love, in effective, stimulating combinations."
The questions mostly revolved around programming and scheduling. Because he’s committed to conduct the Met’s opening production (Verdi’s Otello), his first concert will come fourth in the fall line-up — Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, because it is one of those works, he said (mentioning also Beethoven’s Fidelio and Missa solemnis and Haydn’s Creation), "in which a very great composer tries to write a piece which is a whole-world experience." Seiji Ozawa, he remembered, ended his BSO tenure with Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, a symphony of farewell. The Eighth, he said, is a symphony "of everything in the world and in the heavens — alive and ringing . . . It’s very positive, celebratory . . . the right piece for starting." BSO general manager Mark Volpe assured us (and Levine) that he would be opening the BSO season in each of the following four years.
Next season will have one of the BSO’s densest schedules of contemporary music: new works by Milton Babbitt and Charles Wuorinen and Boston’s John Harbison, Yehudi Wyner, and Michael Gandolfi. Besides composers as diverse as Olivier Messiaen and George Gershwin, we’ll get music by some rare 20th-century visitors to Symphony Hall: Viktor Ullmann (who died at Terezin), Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Harrison Birtwistle, and William Bolcom, and more than one work apiece by such great 20th-century figures as Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Ligeti, Lutoslawski, and Elliott Carter, who was present at the press conference because Levine was leading two of his pieces that night, both BSO firsts, including the world premiere of a new commission (Carter’s second in as many years). Both Carter pieces will be repeated next season. "When I look at these programs," Levine confessed, "I get goosebumps — and I made them." (See "Arts News," on page 4 of "8 Days a Week," for the complete 2004-2005 BSO season.)
"Why so much Carter?" someone asked.
"A modern orchestra," Levine explained, "builds a repertory of works by the most inspired, fascinating composers alive. The audience needs a profile of the great composers of our time, and Elliott Carter is perhaps our greatest living composer." Levine said he wanted "to avoid playing a single work and not repeating it. The second time you encounter a great work, you hear things you couldn’t take in the first time. The orchestra needs to digest the pieces — and the audience does too. It’s not possible to fall in love with a piece and not hear it again." He just might make new music a hot item.
But the BSO schedule also includes a Brahms evening (led by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos) and a healthy dose of Schubert (not an Ozawa favorite). Levine will join pianist Evgeny Kissin for an evening of Schubert four-hand and will play Mozart and Schubert quintets with the BSO Chamber Players. He lamented the artificial segmentation among different kinds of music: opera, chamber, classical, Baroque. So he’s also conducting Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer (with Deborah Voigt), the last act of Salome (with Karita Mattila), and Berlioz’s sumptuous evening-length operatic concert piece, Roméo et Juliette (with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson). About concert performances of operas, he said, "I believe in them. They have at least whatever validity there is listening to a recording — and the performers can concentrate on the purely musical side." At least, as long as the opera "is well-chosen, well-cast, and," he added pointedly, "well-rehearsed." (A major concern in his negotiations with the BSO was his demand for more rehearsal time for pieces that need it.)
He was quite open about what guest conductors get assigned. "There’s a lot of music I know and love that I don’t want to conduct." So he first asks guests what they "really want." Or he might send a list of suggestions. "No single musician can play everything — though some of us do try." Asked about Toscanini by Ron Della Chiesa, the opera-loving host for WGBH’s BSO broadcasts, Levine said that he considers him "purely and simply — more than anyone — what a conductor is supposed to be: a great model if you use your volatile personality as a vessel for the composer."
His most detailed answer was to the question about the way he’s reseating the players: first and second violins on opposite sides of the stage, cellos and basses behind the first violins. "If you look at any score from Haydn through Mahler, you would see how the composers experienced the orchestra — the way they heard orchestras when they were growing up." Separating the cellos and basses from the violas eliminates "a big, opaque bass sonority. You can’t get rid of it, it’s in your face all the time — gloppy." Composers of the 18th and 19th centuries intended first and second violins to play antiphonally, both at the front of the stage. So now the second violins won’t have to force to be heard. With this arrangement, he said, "Play as soft as you want, you can hear everything; play as loud as you want, the sounds aren’t thick, the lines are never blurred."
That was certainly the case in the concert. The orchestral texture had a kind of translucence that worked not only for Mozart and Dvorák but also for the two Carter pieces (though Carter hadn’t intended this particular configuration of players). More concise than Levine’s overly ambitious first concert as director designate two years ago, this program also paralleled it: they both had Mozart, Dvorák, and two contemporary pieces. Everything he chose this time, he said, was "based on a kind of energy" — they were "presentation" pieces rather than works of interior soul searching (in fact, all works that make extensive use of fanfares).
This year’s Mozart was the Paris Symphony, No. 31, which the BSO last did in Boston 17 years ago. The performance was stylish yet vigorous, mercurial, full of dramatic contrasts, even complex (those unexpected modulations into shadowy minor keys) without being fussy or showy, weighty without sounding heavy. The strings glowed, practically iridescent. In the third movement, you could hear the theme circling the string sections. Timothy Genis’s timpani playing, at the rear of the stage, way over on the audience’s right, had (like everything else) just the right buoyancy. Conducting undemonstratively from a chair on the podium, Levine virtually disappeared into the music.
Dedicated to Levine, Carter’s new Micomicón (an Ethiopian kingdom made up to delude Don Quixote) was completed last year, when the composer was 94. A prelude to his Symphonia in four tightly organized sections that feel completely spontaneous, the piece lasts less than three minutes, and it would take longer than that to describe how brimming with incident and invention it is. But it sets up the entire Symphonia: Sum fluxae pretium spei ("I am the prize of fleeting hope," a phrase from Richard Crashaw’s Latin poem "Bulla"), and especially its 15-minute first movement, Partita (Italian for "sporting match"), which was composed in 1993 as an independent piece. In both, we follow (or we are) the "bulla" ("bubble") as it races or lingers over ever-changing landscapes, facing dangers and seductions. Single instruments — chirping piccolo, pounding timpani, searching English horn — get challenged, interrupted, drowned out; yet they persist, and the bubble keeps moving on. Is "Micomicón" the kingdom of the mind itself, the deranged mind of the creator (or of the listener?), with all its unanticipated fantasies?
Micomicón starts with a crash of cymbals and a trumpet fanfare and ends in a dying whisper of strings. Partita (Allegro fantastico) also begins with an explosion, stays ominous and agitated even longer, then gets very playful before its abrupt end. A night passage of slow-dancing intimacy was particularly sensual and mysterious in Levine’s hands. His ardent advocacy surely made these pieces as exciting to play as they were compelling to hear. Opening night, the audience saved its biggest cheer for the spry 95-year-old composer, who was sitting in the first balcony next to the stage. In November, we’ll get to hear how Micomicón and the entire astonishing three-movement Symphonia work together. (Present at the Friday matinee was James Bolle, who two years ago at Sanders Theatre, with his Monadnock Festival Orchestra, led the American premiere of the Symphonia.)
Then Dvorák’s melodious, consoling, melodramatic, and sometimes heroic Symphony No. 8 — another series of contrasts in an evening of continual contrasts. The sound was full, but warm rather than lush. Phrasing from moment to moment was energized, suspenseful, and singing. Elizabeth Ostling won a generous hand for her lovely flute solos. This time the fanfare launched the last movement. The most magical moment came near the end, when the returning fanfare, with its raucously trilling battery of raised horns, turned into a hushed lullaby for violas and cellos before the final surprise explosion.
Introducing Levine at the press conference, Mark Volpe said, "I’ve never met anybody with a more active and engaging musical intelligence." How many decades has it been since the hype understated the fact?
Issue Date: January 23 - 29, 2004
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