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The Pit and the Proscenium

New York
Carnegie Hall
05/21/2000 -  
Bela Bartok: Bluebeard's Castle; Concerto for Orchestra
Anne Sophie von Otter (Judith)
Samuel Ramey (Bluebeard)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
James Levine (conductor)

When Daniel Barenboim decided to migrate from the piano bench to the podium, he approached George Szell for advise. The great Hungarian master told him to find a third rate orchestra to direct and to slowly make it his own. Surely, Szell must have given the same advise to his protégé James Levine, for the young man from Ohio dodged offers from Philadelphia and later Cleveland to take over the solid but pedestrian Metropolitan Opera orchestra. Over a 25-year period, Maestro has built the best ensemble in New York, making drastic changes in personnel and increasing the wage scale to the highest in America. Night after night, these unsung heroes and heroines, many of whom are the most well respected teachers in the city, toil away in the relative obscurity of the darkened orchestra pit, producing very fine realizations of the basic and the modern repertoire. One listen to their Rhine Journey or Interlude from Wozzeck would convince even the most critical of listeners that they should be given the chance to explore the symphonic repertoire as well. Mr. Levine has now liberated them from the bowels of the Met and they have become a first class traveling symphonic roadshow, often dazzling the locals and putting their brethren across the Lincoln Center Plaza to shame. Shunning the operatic repertoire, they have made their way through the orchestral masterpieces of the last 300 years in a most impressive manner. This afternoon at Carnegie they performed the entire object lesson in miniature: a complete opera followed by an orchestral piece designed to showcase their individual and collective virtuosities.

Anne Sophie von Otter brought great acting ability to the role of Judith. Scared at the beginning and resigned at the end, she navigated her way through the Hungarian diction with just the right degree of trepidation. Samuel Ramey was a tired Bluebeard, however, and I have heard him sing this part much more expansively in the past. The orchestra was marvelously dark, but much too loud in places, their triple fortes designed to growl out of the pit forcing the singers to run for cover in the open acoustics of the Carnegie stage. Compared to Levine's Bluebeard of ten years ago (which was coupled with a knockout Erwartung with Jessye Norman), what was behind door number two was a rather listless performance.

The playing in the Concerto for Orchestra was superb throughout, the winds particularly impressive, but the overall interpretation was a little dry and uninteresting for my taste. Each moment of this amazing orchestral tour-de-force should be eagerly anticipated and it was not, the phrases rather running together in a pleasant, but not sufficiently crisp, manner. Levine kept matters very tightly controlled and this is perhaps excessive for Bartok, since the instrumentalists need some breathing room to play passionately and expressively and to "let their hair down" in this marvelous concert a tutti. Even such normally exciting effects as the tympani slide were simply a part of the overall fabric, not electric moments of masterful klangfarben. The work took on the attributes of a standard symphony rather than a unique way to highlight each and every one of these obviously fabulous musicians. Mr. Levine looks positively apoplectic these days; maybe he just needs a good summer's rest.

For as long as I can remember, the Texaco Opera Broadcast on Saturday afternoons always ended with the phrase "…and the concertmaster is Raymond Gniewek." Mr. Gniewek joined the orchestra as the solo violin in 1957 (around the time when I would have started listening) and has been there as concertmaster ever since. He was present at the creation of this top-notch ensemble and had a lot to do with its overall ascendancy into the ranks of the top echelon of American performing bodies. This afternoon was his final concert and classily, Mr. Levine allowed Mr. Gniewek to be the soloist in the encore piece ("Voice of Spring") and even presented him personally with a large bouquet. The crowd responded with a long standing ovation. Mr. Gniewek can be proud of his association with such a fine group and deserves a peaceful and fruitful retirement. Where were you in 1957?

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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