by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Nov. 29, 2004.
James Levine is a happy man. Or so it seemed when I talked to him earlier this month, in his office at Symphony Hall in Boston. The man who leads the two most venerable institutions in American music—the Metropolitan Opera and the Boston Symphony—looked to be in good health. He spoke in rapid, enthusiastic, circuitous paragraphs, his eyes lighting up whenever he touched on a favorite score. Having just finished rehearsals for Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony and Elliott Carter’s “Symphonia,” he was full of thoughts about how Beethoven was really the first contemporary composer and how Carter is really an old master. He was fine-tuning programs for the following season, lavishing special attention on a series pairing Beethoven and Schoenberg. He had figured out how to present Beethoven’s thorny “Grosse Fuge,” which rivals anything by Schoenberg in its capacity to make audiences fidget. With a grin, he said that he would play the “Grosse Fuge” twice in the same program, with the violin concertos of Beethoven and Schoenberg in between. He was hoping to create a time-warp effect in which Beethoven would be heard as both past and present. “We can’t make this into a piece from ‘back then,’ ” he said. “It’s a piece from right here and now.” Resting on his piano was the freshly printed score of Milton Babbitt’s “Concerti for Orchestra,” which he will conduct in January. “Come look at this,” he said, patting the music as if it were a healthy baby.
Levine is preëminent among American conductors, yet he remains a curiously contested figure. Some intelligent listeners of my acquaintance are perpetually dissatisfied with him, although they seldom agree whether his performances are too predictable or too idiosyncratic, too polished or too ragged. Fifth-hand rumors of the urban-legend variety swirl around him. Last spring, the Times quoted anonymous players who questioned Levine’s ability to give a clear beat on account of a tremor in his left arm. This kind of chatter inevitably catches up to any conductor who stays in one place for a long time. Although I’ve never been among the carpers, I’ve sensed that some of the zing has gone out of the thirty-three-year-old relationship between Levine and the Met orchestra. Uncertainty hangs over the entire house. The Met recently unsettled the music world by announcing that Peter Gelb, a record-company executive best known for crossover projects, would be its next general manager.
Small wonder, then, that Levine is happy to be in Boston. I attended his gala début, a thunderous account of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, and returned for two other programs. It’s hard for an out-of-towner to generalize from three concerts, but Levine already seems to have added lustre to the scene. The orchestra is playing with a tonal beauty and rhythmic bounce that it long lacked under Seiji Ozawa. A performance of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” in particular, had the same visceral precision that marks the conductor’s best nights at the Met. Levine’s empire of the just-so is moving north.
Can an institution be both élitist and populist? If any orchestra can pull it off, it’s the Boston Symphony, which, since its inception, in 1881, has carried itself like a grande dame of Back Bay who invites both fancy and scruffy people to her parties. The Boston audience is simply different from any other orchestra public in America. In one corner, Harvard musicologists cite Adorno; in another, sweatshirt-clad Longy School of Music students complain of insufficient legato; meanwhile, the sages of Brookline fondly recall Koussevitzky. Joseph Horowitz, in his forthcoming history of American classical music, notes that Isabella Stewart Gardner used to wear a Red Sox hatband to Boston Symphony concerts. Indeed, I saw more than a few Red Sox insignia at Symphony Hall the night after the World Series ended. As Goethe predicted in the text of the Mahler Eighth, “The unattainable here becomes fact.”
Levine thinks that the Boston audience is primed for something other than the usual cautious programming. “With Harvard here, with the New England Conservatory, with all the other schools, the number of people you meet who are warm and passionate and smart about the subject”—meaning music—“is maybe higher than anywhere else in the country. It’s not that New York doesn’t have it, but the community there is larger, more spread out. Boston is somehow just perfect for me.”
The city has been rewarded with some gorgeous performances. Schoenberg’s “Five Pieces for Orchestra” sounded almost unlawfully voluptuous, as Levine emphasized certain D-minor-like sonorities in the second movement that threaten to stop the Atonal Express before it leaves the station. Ligeti’s “Lontano,” too, was more serene and seductive than the composer’s avant-garde reputation might suggest: again, the conductor pointed up the half-familiar chords that are strewn about the score—some near-G-minor there, some maybe-D-major here. In the “Rite,” Stravinsky’s convulsive gestures hung in the air like violent paintings on a white wall, their energy at once intensified and organized. The atmosphere was electric throughout: Levine seemed to be choosing tempos a split second faster than what the orchestra had been given in rehearsal, so that the music had an unchecked, hurtling motion.
Because the late-Romantic and early-twentieth-century repertory was always Ozawa’s specialty, the orchestra’s strength in that area came as no surprise. Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, by comparison, sounded less stylistically secure, though still super-refined in the old Boston style. Levine told me that in the Classical and early-Romantic scores he wanted to work on clarity of articulation, which can be difficult to obtain with Symphony Hall’s resonant acoustics. “I really don’t like the ‘coerced blend,’ ’’ he said, referring to the sort of artificially smoothed-over textures that some conductors favor in Mozart. The “Prague” Symphony, admittedly, never quite roused itself from a slumber of sweet strings; the winds were too much at a distance. (Last month, I heard a more sharply characterized “Prague” from the American Classical Orchestra, at the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer, in New York.) The “Eroica,” by contrast, had real urgency, a disciplined roughness. These days, Levine is willing to sacrifice ultimate beauty in pursuit of a dramatic interplay of voices.
Perhaps the fact that the orchestra essayed Elliott Carter before intermission added to the punch of its Beethoven. This is one reason that Levine is stressing new music in Boston: he thinks it will have an invigorating effect on how the orchestra plays and on how the audience listens. His programming this fall is riskily biased toward the present. Two-thirds of the works are from the twentieth century, almost one-third from the past fifty years. What is more, Levine is avoiding the sort of neo-tonal music that audiences generally embrace; instead, he is in lockstep with the Old Guard of American modernism, the likes of Carter, Babbitt, and Charles Wuorinen, together with postwar European masters like Ligeti and Lutoslawski. It remains to be seen how the average listener will take this strict modern diet. I myself wish that Levine would lend an ear to John Adams and other less curmudgeonly characters, but there is no point in asking a conductor to advocate music he doesn’t believe in. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Bostonians will be willing to put up with a fair amount of atonal hurly-burly if it keeps their new star happy.
To pair Carter’s “Symphonia” with Beethoven’s “Eroica” was a delightfully brazen gesture. It was also an honorable acknowledgment of the almost ninety-six-year-old composer, who had yet to hear his biggest and probably best piece performed by a major American orchestra. Carter’s vast abstract canvas left me feeling ambivalent, as his work often does. The outer movements suffer from a lack of thematic variety; the endless scurrying motion of the writing leads to premature fatigue. Yet the middle movement, “Adagio tenebroso,” is deep, dark, powerfully affecting music. For once, Carter suspends his urge to juggle rhythms and writes spacious, stately paragraphs. Open fifths abound; ghosts of tonality glide about. (Yep, that’s an F-minor triad in bar 171.) Like the second movement of the Beethoven, this is clearly a funeral cortège, though who or what is being buried is anyone’s guess. The resemblance of the opening muted trumpet line to Ives’s “Unanswered Question” gave me the idea that Ives himself, or some other great, old, eccentric, freethinking American, was being carried to his grave.
As if in league with Levine’s campaign for endangered American modernists, New York City Opera recently gave the world première of Wuorinen’s “Haroun and the Sea of Stories.” It is based on Salman Rushdie’s fable of imagination and repression in an India-like land; the terse, funny libretto is by James Fenton. Although Wuorinen has not renounced the twelve-tone writing with which he made his name, he, too, now deposits triads in his scores as if they were pillow mints, and even indulges in pastiches of jazz and blues. Schoenberg once believed that atonal music could have the same emotional range as tonal music; Wuorinen, surrendering to psycho-acoustic reality, uses dissonant complexity to express the terror of war and quasi-tonal passages to express love and reconciliation. Passages of the latter type are, admittedly, tentative and fleeting. This comedy growls and thrashes more than it sings and dances. Still, it’s a robust, extroverted work, and City Opera, which started its season with a ghastly production of Strauss’s “Daphne,” served it well. Mark Lamos’s Julie Taymor-ish staging was visually poetic; Heather Buck, Peter Strummer, Ethan Herschenfeld, and Joel Sorensen all gave satisfying performances, although they sometimes struggled to stay aboard the merry-go-round of Wuorinen’s pitch rotations. To adapt Oscar Levant’s remark about Gershwin, an evening with Charles Wuorinen is a Charles Wuorinen evening.