Music / The Berkshire Review in Boston

The Boston Symphony in the New Year: Levine Returns

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James Levine with the BSO. Photo Michael Lutch.
James Levine with the BSO. Photo Michael Lutch.

Friday, January 8, 1.30 pm
Ton Koopman, conductor and harpsichord
Yo-Yo Ma, cello

Haydn, Symphony No. 98
Haydn, Cello Concerto No. 1 in C
C.P.E. Bach, Symphony in G, Wq. 183.4
Schubert, Symphony in B minor, Unfinished

Tuesday, January 19, 8 pm
Sir Colin Davis, conductor
Nikolaj Znaider, violin

Mozart, Symphony No. 38, Prague
Elgar, Violin Concerto

Saturday, January 30, 8 pm
James Levine, conductor
Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano
Steven Ansell, viola

Carter, Dialogues, for piano and orchestra
Berlioz, Harold in Italy, for viola and orchestra
Ravel, Piano Concerto for the left hand
Ravel, Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2


Friday, February 5, 1.30 pm
James Levine, conductor
Elizabeth Rowe, flute

Schubert, Rosamunde Overture and Entr’actes
Carter, Flute Concerto (American premiere; BSO co-commission)
Brahms, Symphony No. 4

The Boston Symphony began the new year with a reduced ensemble, brilliantly conducted by the early music specialist Ton Koopman. The orchestra didn’t attempt gut strings or period winds and percussion in any way, but the players responded intuitively to Koopman’s brisk tempi and sprung phrasing, resulting in a satisfyingly vigorous, if not quite revelatory Haydn Symphony No. 98, the last of his first set of Salomon symphonies, followed by Yo-Yo Ma’s exuberant, somewhat exaggerated performance of Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C, a most welcome and impeccably played symphony by C. P. E. Bach, and a very beautiful Schubert “Unfinished,” limpid in texture and phrased with fine taste and feeling. I’ll say more about this in the context of Alan Gilbert’s almost simultaneous concert, which also paired Schubert’s Eighth with a Haydn symphony of an entirely different kind.

Next week there followed what was to me a slightly disappointing concert under Sir Colin Davis, not that he wasn’t in his usual fine fettle. The concert began with Mozart’s “Prague” Symphony, played without repeats, possibly because of the length of Elgar’s Violin Concerto which followed. Normally, I’d object to the omission of the repeats in the “Prague,” because the proportion of the three movements is off, if they are not observed, and the last movement just slips by too rapidly without them. (I’ve recently praised Sir Charles Mackerras’ recording of the work on Linn for its sense of structure and proportion: of course Sir Charles was generous with the repeats.) On the other hand, Davis’s performance was sufficiently robust and full-toned to counteract that to some degree, and I missed the repeats less than I might have. In fact, the performance was a trifle heavy. Mozart’s wonderful syncopations could have been a bit crisper and lighter. I must admit that, as much as I admire Sir Colin’s musicianship, I find some of his Mozart symphony performances slightly unsatisfying in their extroversion, especially the “Prague,” in which I especially admire the darker progressions and hints of melancholy amidst its bracing counterpoint. I felt better, however, when one of my companions compared the performance to a bright, crisp day in winter—which never occurred to me before. If I note my fondness for Bruno Walter’s various recordings of this work, as well as Peter Maag’s supreme Decca recording with the LSO from the 1950s, you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

I believe I am in a minority in finding Nikolaj Znaider’s reading of Elgar’s Violin Concerto singularly disappointing. As confident as he appeared, he did not seem entirely secure with the work, above all its rich psychological content and shifting tempi. He seemed to attack each section as a challenge to be overcome with the maximum of control and virtuosity. Unlike the fourteen-year-old Yehudi Menuhin, he seemed to lack the emotional maturity to penetrate the surface. I also found a dry and ungenerous quality in his tone in the higher registers of the famous Guarneri del Gesù he plays. (It once belonged to Fritz Kreisler, and that great violinist used it in the premiere of this very work. Kreisler’s rich vibrato may be what brings this instrument fully to life.) I have to admit that I found this masterpiece by a composer I especially love episodic and occasionally boring in Znaider’s hands. Elgar’s Violin Concerto is like a great Edwardian novel or memoir, and without a fairly deep identification with the composer’s psyche a performer is lost. Znaider was at his best towards the end of the last movement, when he finally began to engage me with his playing of the accompanied approach to the cadenza and the cadenza itself. Here his playing was interesting and compelling, but he could just as well have been playing Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, or Shostakovich. Sir Colin gave him sympathetic and strong support, full of color and dramatic gesture.

I had been looking forward with interest to James Levine’s return to the podium after his long absence, but I was unable to come to Boston for his first concert. I was, however, able to hear most of it online, in excellent sound from WGBH’s website. I missed only the Daphnis and Chloé Suite. Levine produced one of his neatly balanced and controlled performances of the Carter Dialogues, brilliantly played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Harold in Italy seemed an intimate, delicately balanced performance to me, one of the most compelling I have heard, and Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand was truly amazing. Aimard’s rich understanding of all aspects of this work, its interplay of light and dark, was unsurpassed, and Levine supported him all the way, with the sort of tight, totally engaged playing one associates with chamber music. As broadcast, this seemed to be one of Levine’s very best days, and I certainly hope it turns up in the BSO’s exemplary series of recordings.

This led me expect great things of the next program, which I was able to attend. It began with Schubert’s Overture and two Entr’actes from Rosamunde. Using full violins but only four double bass, Levine produced a robust sound from the orchestra, due in part to his allowing the brass, which here includes trombones a solid hearing. The violins, split right and left, were quite bright. Tempi were nicely judged and the winsome tunes were nicely phrased, with only a touch of Viennese sweetness (i.e. portamento) here and there. Still, I couldn’t help finding this music a trifle irrelevant in the context of a new work by Carter and Brahms’ greatest symphony in the program of a major symphony orchestra. As appealing as this theatrical music is, it’s not terribly substantial Schubert. Still, it has its charm; it put the audience in a good mood before the Carter, and Levine will address Schubert’s Great C Major Symphony in a few weeks. The Carter was full of color, as usual, making the most of the instrument to which the work is dedicated, as well as every imaginable corner of the rest of the orchestral palette—all in about fifteen minutes. Carter put the flute, brilliantly played by Elizabeth Rowe, through elaborate gymnastics, requiring rich tone along with a wide gamut. Sharp percussion marked the opposite extreme in this urbane conversation among the flute solo and the various choirs of the orchestra.

Levine has given special attention to Brahms during his tenure at the BSO, returning to them pretty much every year in some way or another. Last year, I also heard Herbert Blomstedt perform the Fourth, both at Symphony Hall and a Tanglewood. (Both performances were superb, but it really caught fire at Tanglewood, I thought.) It seems almost like an obsession for Maestro Levine, however. Of these, I have only heard the First, which he conducted, oddly, as a chaser to Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle at Tanglewood. That was an elegant and immaculate performance, but it left me cold. In this Fourth, Levine attempted manfully to go beyond that. He seemed to want the orchestra to play with as brilliant a sonority as possible. This sounded rather forced, and, in Symphony Hall’s spacious acoustic, compromised the clarity of the orchestral textures. The details Levine wanted to emphasize came through, but it was a long way from the miraculously lucid textures Rattle recently produced from the Berlin Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall. Levine seemed to be most interested in the urgency and drama of the work, to the disadvantage of its more introspective passages. Hence I found the symphony got off to a less than ideal start with a first movement that was somewhat too fast and inflexible. The last three movements were more successful, and, together, they were nicely paced. Levine adopted a fairly active pace in the slow movement, but it seemed appropriate and was still broad enough to make a contrast with the first. The wind playing was especially beautiful here, as it was throughout the evening. The scherzo had a wide range of dynamics and was immaculate in execution. The sound of the triangle was especially well integrated into the overall sound. The great final passacaglia was impressive without being especially involving or moving. Again the BSO brought of the contrasting sonorities of the succeeding variations to perfection. I was not, however, entirely happy with Elizabeth Rowe’s playing of the flute solo. Her tone was rich and varied, but, as if over-stimulated by her exertions in the Carter concerto, she went too far with Brahms’ espressivo marking, exaggerating the phrasing of her line. This crushingly bleak music calls for restraint. Overall, Levine’s continuing tendency to push the music forward worked well as a leading force through the variations, culminating in grand brass chords and strokes of the tympani.

Levine took long pauses between movements, shrugging in a gesture which I interpreted as expressing dissatisfaction, and talking to the front-desk players. This interrupted the feeling of a continuous performance of the four movements. Presumably this had something to do with therecording that was being made of the concert. I began to wonder whether I was actually at a concert or a public recording session. I don’t usually comment on the incidental mannerisms of musicians, as long as they do not affect the music, but throughout this concert Levine’s habit of dancing a-rhythmically on a foot rest, which has been set up in front of his stool, reached a degree where it was impossible to ignore it. I found it distracting and even irritating. These strange movements right in front of the faces of the first desk players can hardly make it easy for the musicians to concentrate. Out of consideration for the everyone behind or in front of him Maestro Levine should take measures to get his tics under control.

Gustavo Dudamel's US Debut in the Hollywood Bowl, 2005. Photo Mathew Imaging.
Gustavo Dudamel's US Debut in the Hollywood Bowl, 2005. Photo Mathew Imaging.

This is suitable place to address certain highly negative remarks, which have been recently made about James Levine by Jeremy Eichler in the Boston Globe and by Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times. Eichler titled his year-end summary of the Boston musical scene “Artistic vision was absent at times in Levine’s BSO.” (see also Paul Well’s commentary in Maclean’s) Contrasting the elaborate inaugurations of younger music directors at the New York and Los Angles Philharmonics, both of whom offer wide-ranging innovations in programming and education, he focused not only on Levine’s long absences, which have been written into the terms of his contract and extended by ill-health, but also on Levine’s and the BSO’s artistic vision. As an example of up-to-date artistic planning and community involvement he cites the Chicago Symphony, which has hired Yo-Yo Ma as its “creative consultant.” In this Eichler largely follows the observations of Anthony Tommasini, published in October, in the wake of the installations of Alan Gilbert and Gustavo Dudamel, as well as the announcement of Levine’s cancellation of the greater part of his autumn residence with the BSO, including most of his cycle of Beethoven symphonies—in the end he cancelled all of them, much to the disappointment of his Boston public. Tommasini contrasted this with his praise of the inaugural concerts of Gilbert and Dudamel as statements of their artistic missions, which included “premieres of significant commissioned works, tokens of fresh offerings and festivals to come.” After pointing out that this is Levine’s third major health crisis in four years, he made his primary point, that, after revitalizing the BSO following Ozawa’s lackadaisical tenure and presenting “formidable contemporary works and numerous premieres, Mr. Levine seems to be in an artistic quandary at the orchestra.” By contrast Tommasini describes the enthusiasm which has grasped Los Angeles following Dudamel’s inaugural concert, a free four-hour “multicultural gala” in the Hollywood Bowl attended by 18,000 people, which included Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, as well as an arrangement of the “Ode to Joy” played by a youth orchestra drawn “mostly from minority families in South Los Angeles.” He also mentions Dudamel’s predecessor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Michael Tilson Thomas as music directors who have favored the LA model, which is “inclusive, to offer new and experimental works, for living composers to be presences in the community, like John Adams, the orchestra’ s new chairman for contemporary programming.” Tommasini also writes favorably of Alan Gilbert as “a needed generational overhaul” after two “authoritarian” conductors, Kurt Masur and Lorin Maazel. He quotes two colleagues to corroborate the improvement in the Philharmonic’s sound and notes Gilbert’s gift as an educator and proselytizer.” He has also brought in a composer in residence, Magnus Lindberg, a Finn, much to the annoyance of local composers. While duly noting the shortcomings of the two young music directors, i.e. that Dudamel’s Mahler was a bit rough and Gilbert’s Berlioz a little too sane, although beautifully executed, he returns to Levine’s deficiencies. His major project of a complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies is “routine by comparison.” Tommasini admits that Levine has greatly improved the orchestra’s playing, and he has also improved on Ozawa’s lackluster programming. He mentions Levine’s love for the sophisticated, complex music of Wuorinen, Babbit, and Carter and refers to Levine’s Carter festival in celebration of the composer’s 100th birthday as a questionable endeavor, since “diverse younger composers who should be heard in Boston have been overlooked so far.”

From both critics, one gets the idea that youth, outreach, novelty, multiculturalism, local—above all new works by young local multicultural composers—are good, and that age, complexity, sophistication, established composers, internationalism, above all the European, and above all, the classic are bad. Of course nothing is that simple. Are arrangements performed by adolescent music students before vast, cheering audiences a step forward for classical music? Should the time and budgets of major orchestras be devoted to the music of “diverse young composers” at the expense of internationally respected, mature composers? Is John Adams any less of an establishment figure than Carter or Lindberg? Is a cycle of Beethoven’s symphonies really such a boring, awful thing? Does James Levine really deserve the criticisms which have been levelled at him?

After quite a few years of hearing Levine conduct at the Met, at Carnegie Hall, at Symphony Hall, and at Tanglewood, I have felt my share of frustration with his work. Sometimes, as I go to one of his concerts, I feel fed up with wondering whether the performance will be a great one, or merely a very good one. (business as usual in any first-rate orchestra) He has produced some unsatisfactory results as well, mostly early in his tenure at Boston. Levine is basically conservative as a musician. His performances sometimes lack imagination, and their best qualities come from painstaking preparation, attention to detail, and respect for the score, while his inspiration often comes from a particular soloist he especially likes, usually a singer. This puts him on thin ice in symphonic performances. Why was his Tchaikovsky Fourth a truly great performance and his Sixth magnificently performed but unexceptional? He has conducted a Mahler Ninth for the ages, a First and Sixth which seem wilful, but absorbing, and an unconvincing Third. None of the Brahms symphonies I have heard under his baton come anywhere near the great German Requiem of autumn 2008—which is fortunately available as a recording. Why are these erratic results, which at their worst usually remain on a very high level, so hard to accept? It may be the public perception of his personality, which is in fact eclipsed by his absorption in music. It may come from the general expectation of a miracle from Levine as the savior who succeeded Ozawa. It may be the effortfulness of his working methods. With all the sourness that remains, one cannot question his devotion to music or the integrity of his interpretations, even if they are not always exciting.

Levine is not good at concealing the intense labor behind his best, middling, and worst achievements. Stories have circulated about discontent among the musicians, protests against the extra work he has demanded, and he has had to concede a good deal. His two-part performance of Berlioz’ great opera, Les Troyens, is a case in point. The first attempt at Symphony Hall was at best a near-miss. It took a pause and a small change of cast to produce the superb Tanglewood performance. (It is a very healthy sign that nowadays some Tanglewood performances are more successful than their first incarnations at Symphony Hall.) It may still not be up to the work of Sir Colin Davis or Sir John Eliot Gardiner, but it was in itself very fine, and more than enough to justify the effort and expense. And one can hardly say that a concert performance of a great, rarely performed romantic opera is unimaginative programming. His Beethoven-Schoenberg series was fascinating. Who cares if he did it once before in Munich?

Levine’s programs are sometimes strange and unsatisfying. The exigencies of the Symphony Hall season, and especially the more populist Tanglewood Festival require a certain attention to the basic repertory. And the world would be a poorer place without the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, and even Tchaikovsky. In fact, if you consider his activities at both venues as a whole, the criticisms of his programming are hardly justified. In fact Tommasini’s description of the wonderful Carter festival is quite inaccurate. The program, which was initiated and planned by Mr. Levine (he unfortunately could not conduct at the festival or even be present, because of his kidney operation), took place under the aegis of the Tanglewood Music Center as its annual Festival of Contemporary Music. It took some energy and resources away from the main Tanglewood Festival, but the general public, which was the Tanglewood public and not the Symphony Hall audience, was sheltered from these challenging proceedings. I attended every concert in the Carter celebration, and noticed that the vast majority of the audience was composed of enthusiasts. Only a few members of the general public were sufficiently adventurous to attend one event out of curiosity. Elliott Carter is one of our great composers, one who was neglected for a good part of his later career, and there is no question that the festival was one of Mr. Levine’s most admirable achievements. It was characteristic of Tanglewood at its very best. Most of the greatest interpreters of Carter—Charles Rosen, Fred Sherry, Ursula Oppens, and Oliver Knussen—gathered to pass on the performance practices of this difficult music to a much younger generation. In fact recordings should be made available of every moment of it.

As for looking after young music students, Levine has taken an active role in the Tanglewood Music Center as advisor and teacher, and has provided unparalleled opportunity for the TMC Fellows through their performances in the Contemporary Festival and above all the operas, both staged in the Theatre (usually sold out) and in the Music Shed with casts of world-class singers.

All the Boston—and New York—audiences had to endure was the premiere of Carter’s Horn Concerto, which is accessible and fun. Mr. Levine also favors the music of John Harbison, the pre-eminent Boston composer, and William Bolcom, who is also at home in the Northeast. As for young and less established composers, they were very well served by last summer’s Festival of Contemporary Music, which was curated by Augusta Read Thomas, who is in her mid-forties. The program was certainly diverse, built around an enlightening juxtaposition of mostly European and American composers. If this is not a part of the Boston program, it is crucial to remember that contemporary music flourishes in Boston under the care of other institutions, which make a speciality of it, above all David Hoose’s Collage New Music, Gil Rose’s BMOP, the Callithumpian Consort, the Dinosaur Annex, and others.

James Levine is not a Furtwängler, a Walter, or a Monteux, any more than he is an Abbado, a Chailly, or a Rattle. He is an extremely intelligent, conservative musician, with a fanatical predilection for hard work and a total devotion to music. He has certain limitations, like his lack of interest in historically informed performance, as well as some not entirely fruitful obsessions, like the Brahms symphonies and his problematic placement of vocal soloists behind the orchestra. When he is inspired, it is by other musicians, above all, by the human voice. This bodes well for the upcoming concerts, which feature Mahler’s Fourth and Strauss’ Four Last Songs with Renée Fleming, not to mention Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra—so powerfully conducted by Alan Gilbert a few weeks ago…but that’s another story.

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