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The Comeback Kid 

 

James Levine gives John Allison his best estimate for the future

(from May 2014)

 

 

It is a late-wintry morning on the busy streets of New York, and though in the bowels of the Metropolitan Opera the corridors surrounding the orchestra rehearsal room feel a lot cosier, they are no less abuzz. The Met\'s celebrated orchestra has just assembled for a session on Wozzeck with their music director, James Levine, who promptly on the stroke of 11 comes around the corner in his motorized wheelchair. A quick introduction over (we had not met before), he is helped to manoeuvre onto one of the special wheelchair-lift podiums installed before he returned to work at the start of the season, but once eased into place he assumes total and natural control. The 

physical limitations that forced him to take a two-year absence from the company and caused many to question whether he would ever conduct again are quickly forgotten once he is conducting and dissecting passages in his inimitable style.

Explaining to the orchestra-who, like him, have not played the work since spring 2011-that because some members are new, and because some of the cast are new to their parts, his intention is to make everything as secure as possible before they meet the singers, Levine begins with Act 3 and lets them play for a while as a refresher, before starting to take things apart. They get through the famous D minor Invention just in time for the break, after which they work in even more detail on Act 2, without even getting to the end of it. Sometimes he spends several minutes on a bar or two, getting the accents on a particular chord just right with the trombones or trying out different mutes with the horns-fascinating for this observer, and an absolute masterclass in how Berg\'s score works. It is detailed work, but ‘forensic\' would be too clinical a description for the loving care Levine takes over this music. Always perfecting, always refining, he has never been the risk-taker that some conductors are. Marvelling here at the
meticulous instructions Berg left in his score, Levine shows why he is always faithful to the composers he is performing: his legacy may not one day prove to be those
big, individual interpretations of a Bernstein kind, but rather the fact that few
conductors have ever turned out so many performances at such a high standard. His current tally at the Met alone stands at over 2,500 opera nights.

Levine\'s well-known affection for the music of Berg and indeed the whole of the Second Viennese School comes through again when we finally sit down to talk a few days later. He is happiest talking music, and a genial conversationalist-once an
interview can be arranged, that is. This one involved hanging around New York for a few days in order to get the short-notice call when Levine felt able to do it. Though he denies that he is interview-shy-‘I\'ve got a stack of magazines to prove it!\'-he has always shunned publicity and is well protected by a close circle both in and outside the walls of the Met. Question marks over his state of health-not to mention the very serious health issues themselves-have probably made him even more elusive of late, but then his time has always gone at its own pace, even if his Wagner seems to have picked up momentum in the last two decades. Though he thinks before he speaks, he doesn\'t always finish a sentence-or pauses to let ideas sink in. Sometimes he goes on to the next thought before he has verbally finished the previous one; perhaps this is a little Wagnerian, too.

In that orchestral rehearsal, where his Berg sounded more late-late-Romantic than atonal, it wasn\'t just the sheer beauty of the playing that made the score seem so warm. Levine spent quite a lot of time making connections with Wagner, and reminding his players of passages in the Ring. ‘Yes, I see this piece as poised right there on the cusp. What\'s coming is spikier and spikier. What it\'s coming from is lush. A lot of the spikiness you used to hear in performances of this piece was simply because it was unfamiliar. Berg gave us a fantastic gift-apart from the great opera itself. The interpretative indications are written to perfection. You may not always be able to do what\'s required, but what you\'re supposed to do is crystal clear. There are no ambiguities.\'

Excitingly, in the season after next Levine will be conducting William Kentridge\'s new production of Lulu. ‘I\'ve always loved the Second Viennese School pieces
especially. And I love the developments that come out of it. I have difficulty with people who want to see it as a tributary that\'s dried up. Virtually all the modern composers I admire use some element of it-people such as Elliott Carter and Charles Wuorinen and Milton Babbitt. I love a big spectrum of music and I can\'t find favourites. I\'m not a favourites person. But I feel a rapport with these things much more than other things. The pieces I want to do are always the more intriguing and more involving works. I can listen to a so-called minimalist piece perfectly happily, but I have so little wish to do them myself. It was important to me that the Met premiered The Voyage [1992]. Philip [Glass] wanted us to do it, and I was very glad we did-I went to school with Philip-but it was better that I left this to another conductor.\'

For all that he is famously a singers\' conductor, at the heart of Levine\'s Met
achievement is his orchestra, which he has raised to great heights over a long period of continuous progress. ‘I love this orchestra. It has to be able to play at the maximum expression and communication in every style, and the only way to achieve that is to work every day, little by little, until the orchestra\'s collective qualities emerge. It\'s a very subtle process. And you try deliberately to get players with different qualities which will rub off on one another. Obviously, of the original group of players I worked with, very few are left. It changes gradually, perhaps just a couple of players a season. Some of the new ones are really marvellous players, but they still need to learn the elements of the style and the details of particular works. We don\'t have a mandatory retirement age, and in fact just a year or so ago we had a timpanist retiring who had started with the orchestra in 1946. That\'s a lot of history!\'

Although Levine is demanding in rehearsal, his podium manner is friendly and
familial. ‘That\'s my way of working in general. With orchestras where the
atmosphere is grim death, it really shuts me down. If I\'m looking for subtleties of nuance, rhythm, tempo, balance-all the things that conductors look for-my
perception is interfered with if something isn\'t flowing constructively towards
solving the problems in the music. Solving the problems set by a composer gives us plenty to do already, without any other distractions. The atmosphere we have
established allows us to grow together, and I\'m proud of all the things that
have developed during my time-the symphonic series we have at Carnegie, the
chamber ensemble we made, and the much more varied operatic repertoire. Sometimes I amaze myself by looking at the number of pieces-and what pieces they are-that have been played for the first time at the Met in the last 40 years. Besides a huge
spectrum of 20th-century pieces, which we have found space for by, for example,
playing a little less Puccini than was the case in the 1950s, in the not too distant past we have done Idomeneo and Clemenza, even Cenerentola, here for the first time.\'

Levine is proud of his Carnegie Hall series with the Met orchestra, and perhaps it is no coincidence that his first public appearance after the two-year recuperation period was with the orchestra at Carnegie on May 19 last year. In a concert there last December he programmed Mahler\'s Seventh Symphony, and describes it as ‘the best example of what the orchestra has accomplished in its Carnegie concert series, which is so thrilling because they are often playing major works for the first time. Why does the public come? It has to do with wanting to hear this group of great musicians, with all the musicianship that playing in the Met orchestra gives, who are fresh at these pieces.\'

Levine is a great communicator in rehearsal. ‘I\'m sure that if you polled the
orchestras I used to guest conduct, they would say they hated it when I went off talking. But I find it really necessary in rehearsal-if I don\'t let them know what we need to do, I can gesture till I\'m blue in the face, and their result will be limited by what they know of the piece and the style already-especially when you are working with players you may not know so well. I mean, a string quartet would never work without discussion, so why an orchestra with all these moving parts? It\'s one of the reasons I gave up relationships with good orchestras at various times, because I felt I couldn\'t give my best as a relative stranger. My teacher at Juilliard, Jean Morel\'-one of several great names of the past on a list of early mentors that also included Rosina Lhévinne, Rudolf Serkin and George Szell-‘always used to say that conducting was a silent art. He taught you to be able to tell an orchestra anything you wanted without speaking, but that\'s not really "me". But he was a wonderful teacher and we got along marvellously, and I was grateful for this skill many times early in my career, jumping in to conduct pieces with no rehearsal.

‘I\'ve never forgotten that in June 1972, when Bing was in the last two weeks of his final season, one by one the performers in Falstaff started cancelling. Dohnányi dropped out as conductor, then Gobbi as Falstaff, then Tebaldi as Alice. Bing got Fernando Corena to sing the title role and Lucine Amara to replace Tebaldi, and when he asked me to jump in, my first reaction was that Falstaff couldn\'t be done at such short notice. I\'d just signed the contract to become the Met\'s principal conductor, and Ron Wilford, who was a dear friend of mine and my manager to the extent that I needed a manager, begged me to do it, giving me three reasons. He said, "First, Mr Bing is in trouble and you can help him. Second, you\'ve conducted Tosca and Luisa Miller here, but don\'t you think that the chorus and orchestra who are about to get you as principal conductor would be interested to see whether their young guy can stand on the podium and get Falstaff going? Third, when you first find yourself in a situation when you need to go to the management and say we need more rehearsal for something, they\'ll know you are serious." That was a good piece of advice.\'

Levine, who turns 71 next month, has given his life to the Met, and has been as ideally suited to it as it has been to him-a singers\' conductor for a singers\' house, and vice versa. He made his debut there in June 1971 with Tosca (preceded by debuts at San Francisco Opera and Welsh National Opera the year before), becoming de facto music director in 1974, following Kubelík\'s resignation, and being officially confirmed in the post in 1976. He was named the Met\'s first-ever artistic director in in 1986, ‘downgrading\' his title back to music director in 2004 in order to be able to devote time to his music directorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but now all his remaining energies are being channelled into the New York house. He may no longer be quite the dominant figure he was in the musical world when he was a regular at Salzburg (1976-93) and Bayreuth (1982-98), or on the rosters of some of the world\'s greatest orchestras (the Berlin, Vienna and Munich Philharmonics, the Chicago Symphony), but he remains surely America\'s greatest conductor. 

It was a shock for everyone when Levine-who used to do ten-plus productions, perhaps three of them new, and more than 70 performances a season-vanished from the Met\'s playbills. His health had already been dicey when he made what was to be his last appearance in two years with the final Walküre on 14 May 2011 (when that
performance suffered a badly delayed start, speculation in the Met\'s lobby inevitably suggested that Levine was ill again-as it turned out, it was the Ring ‘machine\' that was indisposed), and that summer a bad fall damaged his back, leaving him paralysed in his legs, in need of further operations and a long period of recuperation. How did he deal with worries about never returning to the podium? ‘I\'ll tell you. It wasn\'t so much that I worried. I really didn\'t know if I could. I wondered if I would get strong enough, whether the surgery would succeed. It was no fun, but I thought to myself all
throughout, I don\'t know anyone who gets through life without having to solve
something, and I was always the luckiest guy I knew. And even though a spinal cord injury is tough, what I\'m learning and what I\'m involved in as a result is likely to be better for me in the long run than if I had just carried on as before.\'

In truth, his health woes began in earnest at least as far back as 2006, when he fell on stage in Boston and tore a rotator cuff. He was also dogged by rumours of Parkinsons, which for many years were denied, but a couple of years ago in the New York Times
he acknowledged that he was managing a non-progressive condition, or ‘benign Parkinsonism\'. Sadly, he is no longer playing the piano-the instrument on which he made his debut as a ten-year-old prodigy with Mendelssohn\'s Piano Concerto No. 2 in his home town of Cincinnati-and his presence at the keyboard is something acutely missed by singers. He used, of course, to accompany all the greatest singers, just as he could sometimes be found playing chamber music at Carnegie Hall with members of the visiting Vienna Philharmonic on off-nights between the Ring at the Met. Does he see himself returning to the piano? ‘It took me a long time before I was comfortable with the seating balance, and I haven\'t gone further. It\'s really a project I don\'t want to start until I can finish it. We\'ll see.\'

Though no one in public sees him out of his wheelchair, he says he is now able again to walk short distances. ‘Yes, with a walker, and I can even walk up steps very carefully. I still have a lot of work to do. I\'m finding the balance. It will take me most of the rest of this season before I\'m sure that the way we\'re going forward next season is right, but I talked at length with the management about it, and we agreed that we just had to make our best estimate-just as we did when the doctors originally said I could come back. The whole company has been so communicative and supportive during this hiatus, which of course was as sudden for them as it was for me. As soon as I know it\'s safe for me and the company to plan this or that, I\'ll move forward.\'

I ask the conductor who once famously said ‘Over my dead body\' to surtitles at the Met-a threat the house ingeniously circumvented with seat-back titles-and who has never been a big supporter of technological progress how he feels about such
Met-driven developments as Live in HD. For the only time in our conversation he becomes flustered. ‘Can we leave this for next time? It\'s a pleasure to talk to you but this subject is vast for me, and whenever we talk about something which I need to express carefully, it\'s better to come to it fresh.\' Some non-answers tell their own story, and Levine is certainly treading carefully. Yet though there has been past speculation about how Levine\'s traditionalist leanings-not least when it comes to production styles-could have set him up in opposition to Peter Gelb, this does not seem to have been the case. Levine\'s comeback could not have happened without the tactful and patient support of Gelb (who, right at the start of his career, as Vladimir Horowitz\'s last manager, showed that he had an instinct for coaxing stricken artists onto the platform). Despite coming under pressure both inside and outside the Met to clarify Levine\'s long-term status and prospects as music director-and while making contingency plans with Fabio Luisi-Gelb did everything he could to hold on to Levine and entice him to return. He even had the wheelchair podiums built, and everyone is happy to see Levine using them. 

His comeback has been carefully managed, with those Carnegie Hall concerts and a small number of performances across three productions this season-Falstaff, Wozzeck and two separate runs of Così fan tutte (the final performances of which continue into this month). Next season he is taking charge of six productions, from the season-opening new staging (by Richard Eyre) of Le nozze di Figaro to The Rake\'s Progress, with Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Les Contes d\'Hoffmann, Ernani and Un ballo in maschera coming in between. Isn\'t the Wagner a brave but potentially exhausting challenge? ‘This coming season is just the best estimate that I can make for now. Meistersinger is such a musical tonic. I think I need to know whether it\'s just too daunting, but I can\'t know unless I get in there. I feel that I won\'t have a stamina problem, and I don\'t have any pain. If I carry on in this direction as I get more therapy-which is always integrated with my
conducting-who knows what will be possible?

‘So far, all I can say is that I\'ve conducted 16 performances and I\'m getting the feel of how things are working, and how resilient I am-of where the energies should go, and what I really should and shouldn\'t do. I think next season represents a chance to work with the company in more depth again over a greater range of styles, and to get our joint engine up to speed. I think we\'ve made our best estimate. I think it\'s a good plan. I just want to get to the point where I know I can move ahead, even adding operas that would be new for me. And if I can\'t do that, I am prepared to spend more time working with the young artists and conducting less. In two seasons or so I should be able to make that assessment and keep adjusting things. Where my health in general and age in general are concerned, all my doctors are completely encouraging. I might be able to work quite a while longer.\'

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