Saturday, April 17, 2021

Taking stock of James Levin’s tarnished legacy

I was an independent critic, but not on duty, when I attended the Saturday performance of Wagner’s monumental comedy “Die Meistinger von Nuremberg” at the Metropolitan Opera in December 1995.

The artist was close to the ideal. Elegant Burnt Wickle as the wise cobbler Hans Sachs. A shiny Karita Matila as young Eva. The heroic Ben Hepner as Walther, who comes for him. And Herman Pree, a distinguished Veteran, Beckmesser, as the city busi- ness.

Still the star was James Levine.

This was often the case when he was conducting during his decades-long reign at the Met, which culminated in ignorance a few years ago amid allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment – and then conclusively His deathMarch 9 at 77 pm.

If the Met Orchestra sounded sharp, and played with vigilance and spontaneity, that long ago was in large part due to Levin’s leadership in “Meistinger”, already standing for more than 20 years. I particularly remember Hans Sachs’s solitude when it was a generally tolerant character, angrily looking at the vested interests in his neighbors. Levin exploited the melodious harmonious richness and wonderful poignancy of the music, such as Sachs offering solace, as if urging people not to lose their faith.

Now, of course, it is impossible to ignore that it was Levine who was selfish, someone who could make you lose your faith in people. His admirers, his colleagues and critics, who have covered him, have had to assimilate his significant artistic legacy – “No artist in the 137-year history of the Met had as deep an influence as James Levine,” Peter Gelb, The company’s general manager said in a statement – with allegations that tainted that legacy.

It is impossible to think of Levine in the same way after those horrific allegations. Accepting your achievements is not to reduce the real suffering of its victims. But it is still worth taking a moment to consider how he changed the Met in ways that would underline him.

He produced his own orchestra – which was never the glory of a company created to show singers – in an ensemble that competes the world’s great symphony orchestra. He communicated with his players in the most direct way possible: by performing with them in chamber concerts as a pianist and as a conductor. He founded a young artist program that has become a model for companies everywhere. (Even that program, however, is cloudy: after Levin sued the Met To expel him on allegations of misconduct, the company said his investigation found that he removed the victims from the program’s ranks.)

He set about making the 20th century centerpiece milestone milestones, including Debut’s “Pellis et Malisande,” Berg’s “Wozzeck” and “Lulu”, and Stinsinsky’s “The” Rake progress “. (He tried his best to woo the company’s audience for Schoenberg’s 12-tone “Moses und Aron”). Mozart’s “La Clamenza di Tito” and “Idomeneo” were no longer ignored by historical curiosities during the Lewin years . He introduced Met to Veal and Brecht’s “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagani” and Gershwins’ “Pori and Bays” with huge success. A Stravinsky evening saw “The Rite of Spring”, “The Nightingale” and “Oedipus Rex”.

Since his big break at the opera came early, when he made his last-minute debut in just 28 minutes while conducting Puccini’s “Tosca”, he was one of the greats of the Golden Age, Renata Paldi , John Vickers, learning from Leonti. Forming close relationships with emerging greats such as Jesse Norman, Teresa Straits, Hildegard Behrens and Plácido Domingo, Christa Ludwig, Birgit Nilsson and others.

Like other American composers of the post-World War II period, he brought a new, unpublished approach to the score of the European past and a clear musicality. They loved when they talked about opera, such as Verdi’s “Otello,” Mozart’s “Coso Fan Tutte” or “The Rake’s Progress”, he often said, “It’s such a great piece.” I think the last word was important. “Tosca” cannot be merely a moment-by-moment drama; It should also be a symphony, an inexperienced sweep of a piece. Levine gave this message with his best performance.

He strived for naturalism, for music that emerged with a sense of effort. I once saw him rehearsing the “Cos” overture. He wanted this famous musical to whisper with clarity, while swimming. He didn’t want players to sound like they were trying To properly execute streams of notes.

Composer of mind serial Milton Babbitt once told me To his surprise about hearing Levine, then in his early 20s and an assistant at the Cleveland Orchestra, play the piano in rehearsal for the premiere of Babylit’s “Relata I”, a score that scares polyphonic complexity. is.

“Jimmy knew the entire score,” Babbitt said, “and he can play anyone’s part.”

That intelligence often worked to Levin’s advantage on the podium. In operas such as “Pelas et Malisende” and “Wozzek”, he was drawn to his balance of extraordinary emotions and structural rigor. He proved to be an ideal conductor of such works.

But his access to intellectual elements of music, especially contemporary works, limited his reach, particularly from 2004 to 2011, during his tenure as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In the end, he got a chance to make his mark with the surviving musicians. With a prominent ensemble. But he was mainly interested in complex creators such as Elliot Carter, Charles Vuorin and Babbitt. These were the declining figures. But what about the new generation?

That he did not make the Met the cultivator of the new opera, especially by the young creators, was a true failure. The Met’s record in commissioning operas during the Levine era was tragically inadequate. At the end of his tenure, the Met presented premieres by Thomas Edes and Nico Muhly – composers who showed no interest in him.

You would think that a music director would be eager to put his name in new works to promote his company for the future. But during a 2013 interview with Charlie Rose, Levine pushed back against the suggestion that the Met should introduce a new opera each season. “I wish I had really thought that a new opera every year was good enough,” he said. This was a disappointing comment.

His achievements are documented in a vast list of recordings and videos that have been ubiquitous in the Met Schedule of free night streams over the past year. His influence is also tragic, sadly he is accused of profiting in the lives of men.

At the end of that “Mitsinger” in 1995, after a spectacular view of the cheering townspeople, Levin’s arms fell on its sides. There was silence in the opera house for a moment. Then the ovation broke down, and went on and on.

For all the extraordinary singing, Levine and the orchestra were the heroes of the afternoon. He is an orchestra Epidemic without pay. About 40 percent of the players left the New York area. More than a tenth retired.

The ensemble is locked in a tense battle with the Met’s management over their future. Musicians recently Voted to accept low salary In return to return to the bargaining table, where the company is demanding a permanent pay cut that it is necessary to avoid an epidemic.

One way for the Met to honor the best elements of Levini’s hopeless legacy would be to create a spectacular orchestra.

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