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That's Why They Call Him James Levine

New York
Issac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
10/05/2008 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Grosse Fuge in B-flat Major, Opus 133
Olivier Messiaen: Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum
Johannes Brahms: Violin Concerto in D Major, Opus 77

Christian Tetzlaff (Violin)
The Met Orchestra, James Levine (Music Director and Conductor)

James Levine (© Chris Lee)

In David Mamet movie, Heist, Danny DeVito plays a small-time crook always on the make.. When he calls Gene Hackman to join in a big robbery, Hackman tells DeVito he doesn’t need the money.

“Whaddya mean, ya ‘don’t need the money’?” asks DeVito. “Everybody needs money. That’s why they call it money.”

After the first rapier-sharp downbeat with the Met Orchestra yesterday afternoon, it was obvious that every orchestra needs James Levine as well. That’s why they call him James Levine. The new svelte conductor still needs a chair on the dais, but this hardly restricts his strength. For he plunged ceaselessly into the orchestra which he had trained to transcend its moniker as “glorified theatre band”. More important, he turned a rather heavy program into a powerful emotional experience for the matinee audience.

There were no credits given to the string orchestra arrangement of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, but with the addition of double basses playing in unison with the celli, it probably needs minimal tampering. (Though obviously much fiddling.) Still, after almost two centuries, the Grosse Fuge is a work which is still equally complex powerful and mysterious. This is Beethoven at his most enigmatic, with the terrifying theme turned into dance music, into an almost prehistoric whirlwind of counterpoint, into simple sing-a-long passages.

As a string quartet (or Beethoven’s own arrangement for two pianos), it defies description to the mind. As the full string orchestra, it becomes far more physical, the addition of six double basses here turning the groundswell of celli into a primordial rumbling. Most important, Maestro Levine never let it go, as the work turned in upon itself like a thrashing cobra eating its own tail.

Which is why, with such power, the clumsy little dance tune—a forerunner of Mahler—became almost scary. What was Beethoven trying to say? Or feel? Or was this like the reputed piano recitals of Beethoven, when, after the most profound adagios, he would give a huge laugh and snort to the audience before continuing?

At any rate, this showed the strings. More mysteries were to come—and Levine was most mysterious of all—in Olivier Messiaen’s five-part 30-minute prayer for wind, metals and percussion, Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, written for victims of two wars, a meditation by the devout Catholic on death and resurrection.

Levine started with a limitation. The first performance was in a medieval French cathedral, with its grand vitraux, the gleams of gold and silver all adding that important physical color which the composer demands. Carnegie Hall is certainly grand enough, but the choirs of winds, the deep brass and gongs and drums across the back of the stage was… well secular.

Another strangeness. When heard previously, the movements were separated by only a few seconds. Maestro Levine lay down his baton at the end of the sections, and waited up to two minutes before continuing. Add to that the long spaces of silence within the movements, and the results were less a concert (or church) composition, than a piece of Tantric music, to prepare one for meditation and inner explorations.

I doubt whether Messiaen wanted that. But one does not easily criticize Maestro Levine. For whatever reasons, the music had a solemnity, a grandeur and could scare the daylights out of somebody on his deathbed. Certainly the opening notes—on contrabassoon, bass trombone, tuba, horns and trombone on the deepest deepest level gave a glimpse of hell. Each other movement became more “hopeful”, but Levine exceeded himself in the long fourth section… “Raised in glory with the morning stars singing together, and all the sons of God shouting together.”

What miracles Messiaen summoned up here. Bells and trumpets giving an “Allelujah”, chants from the first section, and then the two-minute silence before the final chorale.

After the intermission, we went back to normal. The full Met Orchestra and Christian Tetzlaff playing the Brahms Concerto. As he showed earlier this year with the Berg Concerto, the 42-year-old can make the most difficult works like child’s play. He romped through the Brahms, not always in sync with Maestro Levine. But the fractional differences between them only gave impetus to the whole piece.

True, compared to the previous works, the Brahms Concerto had a kind of home-coming contentment, which is hardly what one wants in such an exciting orchestra. But Maestro Levine will be with us for many more concerts this season. As Monsieur Messiaen and Mr. Mamet might say together, “That’s why they call it Deo Gratias.

Harry Rolnick



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