The Orchestra That James Levine Created
Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
Claude Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Modest Mussorgsky: Songs and Dances of Death (orchestrated by Shostakovich)
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, op.36
Anita Rachvelishvili (mezzo-soprano)
The MET Orchestra, Mirga Grazinytė-Tyla (conductor)
A. Rachvelishvili, M. Grazinytė-Tyla (© Chris Lee)
When the three-concert series of MET Opera Orchestra at Carnegie Hall was created for the 2017-18 season it was quite obvious that it would be without the participation of their Artistic Director James Levine, and in his absence other maestros AND maestras were invited. That, however, was before an outbreak of a new social movement, which I would dare to call #wetoo, was in full force. No, I didn’t misspelled the word: the way I perceive it the #wetoo movement is established not for the individual accusers, but for the organizations, who are so scared of not purging the slightest hint of sexual harassment, lest they will commit an unforgivable act of Political Incorrectness, that they prefer to disassociate themselves from anything that smells of sexual misconduct and/or abuse.
Then, as everyone who has even peripherally observed the music life in the New York City by now knows, came the allegations of Maestro Levine’s sexual misconduct, upon which the Met Opera abruptly severed his ties to him and invalidated his contract. It should be noted that he has not been either indicted or charged. As it has been reported elsewhere “in the meantime, Mr. Levine has been removed, not just from the Met but also from its history. “Our Story,” on its website, contains no mention of the man who led more than 2,500 of its performances. Ditto the Met’s Sirius XM satellite radio channel, which no longer broadcasts Levine-led operas. (They remain available on the company’s subscription service, Met Opera on Demand.).That to me smells very similar to the purges that took place daily in the Stalinist Soviet Union: yesterday you were a hero, tomorrow you existence was almost completely wiped out and equally often it was impossible to find yesterday hero’s grave. Does Peter Gelb really wish to recreate those glorious days in 2018? Does he really need to use Stalinist tactics before we know exactly what Maestro Levine is guilty of and before the guilt was proven?
So after this lengthy lecture/introduction, let me finally say something about the first of the three programs, this one conducted by the young Lithuanian born Ms. Mirga Grazinytė-Tyla, who in recent years has taken Europe by storm and whose impressive New York debut with the Juilliard School Orchestra I was lucky and privileged to witness. She is a rising star and her conducting leaves no doubts as to why. Currently, she serves as a music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, one that for two decades was led by Sir Simon Rattle. On the podium she is a dynamo. She dances, and paints, and also gives precise cues when necessary. She has also a wonderful ear for color and that was demonstrated with the first entrance of the orchestra in the Debussy Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune after a gorgeous flute solo by Seth Morris. We were engulfed in a luxurious wave of sound and a seductive, sensuous atmosphere. That was about the most delicate sounding one can imagine in a ensemble of this size and in a most flexible, leisurely manner.
The same was demonstrated after the intermission when Ms. Grazinytė-Tyla conducted a fiery, exciting, explosive performance of the Symphony No. 4 by Tchaikovsky. There was not a trace of harshness in the opening fanfare and what followed was the softness and warmth of the string section. I simply don’t recall live or on records a string entrance of a similar delicacy and subtlety. It was a if the bows barely touched the strings, something perhaps Karajan might have been able to obtain from his Berlin Philharmonic players. And those miraculous sounds kept reappearing for the remainder of the symphony. It was obvious from the beginning that Ms. Grazinytė-Tyla is perfectly willing to play around with the tempo, often goes to extremes and there were plenty of those amplitudes of pulse.
Perhaps the most jarring moment came in the first movement, with the dancing second theme, which this time appeared more elaborate than anything in memory (though The Great Karajan would pull a trick like that not infrequently). That was, of course, a calculated decision, for the repeated chromatic scales in the winds acquired a different, much more melodic sense. I was not totally convinced by the drastic tempo fluctuation – which the composer requests in moderation – but sometimes Tchaikovsky is performed in such a very personal manner. This was a performance of extremes and it generally worked. There was also great sweep and energy coming from the podium both in the first movement and finale, which predictably was exhilarating. The third movement Scherzo “pizzicato ostinato” was taken in a most leisurely tempo, one could even say a “rehearsal tempo”(if this were an inferior ensemble), but the inner logic was palpable: later in the movement when the winds join there is a traditional gear switch, which Ms. Grazinytė-Tyla skillfully avoided. Was is entirely convincing? Well, it gave that Scherzo an unusually balletic character and it was splendidly performed by the ideally synchronized strings and winds, when the little tune alternated between the sections. If anyone still had doubts how great the string section of the MET Opera sounds, it was dispelled by the encore: our Lithuanian conductor offered us a lovely encore, arguably the most memorable moment of the concert, which was Svajone (Dream) by the Lithuaninan composer Juozas Naujalis (1869-1934). Gorgeously phrased, barely uttered, lovingly lingered upon.
In between the languid Debussy and stormy Tchaikovsky, there were Songs and Dances of Death by Mussorgsky in the 1962 orchestration of Shostakovich. The singer was the mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, known to opera lovers as one of its up-and-coming vocal stars. From my seat in the back of the hall it was hard to judge her voice, let alone her interpretative qualities. A Russian friend, also a reviewer, who claims to know the words of this distressing cycle by heart, confessed that she understood none of Ms. Rachvelishvili’s utterings. These set of four harrowing songs vividly narrate expressionistic, operatic in character encounters with death. While I am always very forgiving and lenient when it comes to musicians using the score, here at Carnegie, our singer separated herself from the audience with a music stand and relied on music, which robbed the performance of any drama. If I were asked what was missing, my only answer would be a presence on stage typified by the great Polish contralto Ewa Podles, who owns these songs and who, in her deeply personal manner unlike anyone else, conveys the horror of those little encounters with the Grim Reaper. This is not a repertory which you read from the page, and someone should have told that to our soloist who offered only a few glimpses of the drama and demonic character of the music.
As it has not been a secret (and it is by now visible!), Ms. Grazinytė-Tyla is expecting a baby soon. After her maternity leave, she’ll be back in New York to conduct the New York Philharmonic, and we shall further see what cards she holds in her sleeve. For now, it was an auspicious debut, showing us a young, very gifted conductor who had her own ideas. In the meantime, I enjoyed the sound of the orchestra that for four decades was a child of Mr. Levine, who it seems has lost custody. If there ever was any doubt in my mind about the future of its music history, the present evening was such a moment. Regardless of what the Met Operas’ present administration policies are, regardless of their erasing of Levine’s name from the orchestras history even by the editors of Playbill (in the April issue, we find full four pages of text about upcoming concerts and conductors, with no mention WHOSE orchestra these conductors took over!), regardless of Mr. Levine’s arguably inexcusable conduct and even a possibility of sexual abuse, he will still be remembered as one of the supreme American conductors, whereas his nemesis Mr. Gelb will, at best, find himself a footnote in the annals of the famed company now involved in a lawsuit with the conductor who made it as great as it is today.