By NPR Fresh Air | Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Hear James Levine's conversation with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air:
May 4, 2011
On June 5, 1971, James Levine lifted his baton and stepped up on the stage at The Metropolitan Opera. The occasion was a festival performance of Tosca. It was also the 27-year-old Levine's debut performance at the Met.
Since then, Levine has conducted works by Verdi, Mozart, Wagner, Rossini, Stravinsky, Debussy and countless others during his 40-year career with the Met. But, he says, he still remembers that first night on the stage.
"I was very excited, but I wasn't nervous," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I kept thinking I should be nervous, but I wasn't. And I think the reason was I had really grown up concentrating on music and on opera, and particularly on the Met. ... So when the time came that I was actually standing there conducting, I remember feeling amazingly at home."
Levine is the subject of a new PBS documentary, James Levine: America's Maestro, as well as James Levine: 40 Years at the Metropolitan Opera, a coffeetable book documenting some of the 2,500 performances he has conducted at the Met. The Met has also released James Levine: Celebrating 40 Years at the Met, two box sets of DVDs and CDs capturing 22 of his nearly 2,500 live opera performances.
Levine recently announced that he would be stepping down as the musical director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which he first conducted in 1972. But he'll continue his tenure at the Met, where he's known for bringing out the best in his musicians and in the company orchestra. In 1994, The New Yorker's Frederic Dannen credited Levine with "developing the orchestra from a mediocre pit band into a world-class ensemble." Levine says that any changes he made were slow and methodical, and always with his musicians in mind.
"Year after year, as we played a more and more diverse repertoire, as we learned a lot of new things [and] as we repeated the difficult and special works more frequently, all these bits and pieces added up to what we needed to make improvements," he says. "We began to play symphonic repertoire and chamber repertoire, which is absolutely essential for orchestra members to improve, and I think ... essentially [we tried to] find every possible constructive solution to the problems that we had. And I think, for the most part, that's the way it's played out for the past 40 years."
Levine tells Terry Gross that one of the most important things he does as a conductor is something he actively tries not to do — get in the way of the artistry of the musicians who are playing.
"I want to be always there for the players, so when they check for something they want to remember — or for something that they need, or for something that is a technical help in the concert — they can see it," he says. "But I want to do that in a way in which the audience is not getting a visual show instead of an aural one."
Levine's style at the podium has always been more muted than that of some of his colleagues. He does not gesticulate wildly or move his arms rapidly because, he says, he does not want to interfere with his audience's perception of the music.
"If your orientation is to watch the conductor, you get your aural sense interfered with in a way that is not completely controllable and conscious — because you see the conductor gesturing in a way that shows something about his feeling about the passage. And this, unconsciously, you measure against what you hear," he says. "And I think the most satisfying pieces that I hear live are usually conducted by conductors who have a very clear-cut idea of what their function is at a rehearsal and what their function is at a concert."
James Levine conducts during a rehearsal before his
debut with the Metropolitan Opera on June 5, 1971.
In rehearsals, Levine says he uses everything in his power to make the orchestra conscious of every single detail in the music. He'll gesticulate and stop the rehearsal, sometimes repeatedly, to illustrate sudden tempo or chord changes within a piece.
"But when the performance comes, the orchestra has to be empowered to function within this conception without having to check with the middle man," he says. "It's not possible to feel and play and respond to what you feel inside and keep looking to have a constant alignment with the gesture of the conductor."
James Levine was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1997. He conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the soundtrack of Fantasia 2000, and he has also conducted the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Munich Philharmonic orchestra.
|James Levine and Renee Fleming, 1993|
On Working With Singers
"Some of the things that you work on, when you're working on interpretation and communication, they have technical aspects. And you have to include those technical aspects, or you can't get at the diagnosis of the problem or the solution. But I don't spend sessions giving people voice lessons, per se. I'm not a voice teacher. But I'm a conductor and a coach, and a lot of technical observation goes into that."
On Stuttering As A Child
"When I was a little kid, I used to reach up high and try to play the piano when I passed by. And I also, at that time, could sing a tune coherently, but I had a very strong speech impediment. And when my parents said to the doctor, 'Well, what do you think?' — when they told him about my banging on the piano, he suggested piano lessons. And I started piano lessons when I was not quite 4 years old. And the speech impediment promptly disappeared, and I got very interested in the piano."
On His Debut At Age 10 With The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
"I hear a great deal of music differently now, because the more music you know and the longer you live, the more insight you have to the complicated music. But fortunately, there are some pieces, and Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 2 is one of them, that have a fairly exuberant and adolescent conception, and it was a very appropriate piece for me to play at that age. And my feeling for it was strong then and has never abated. I still think it's a marvelous piece."
On His Back Pain
"My general health has always been so good, and my life has always been so fortunate, so even when this has really made my life miserable for periods of time, I still feel like a very, very lucky guy. I look around me, and I don't see anybody who doesn't have to solve some kinds of problems; everything can't be perfect. Human beings go through things. And my doctors all think that, in the course of the next year or two, I still have one area giving me pain. And if we do, in fact, solve that — we still have some things we can do to solve it — I may wake up one day and be free of back pain again."
Friday, March 11, 2011
Mar. 11, 2011
BOSTON — The Boston Symphony Orchestra is facing a season of change. The departure of its world-renowned music director James Levine has left a formidable institution without a permanent music director. As it considers its next act, the orchestra finds itself considering both Levine’s legacy and its own goals for the future.
Levine announced last week that he’ll resign his post, effective in September. Hailed as the best conductor since Leonard Bernstein, Levine brought critical success and a reinvigorated reputation to the BSO. But the latter years of his tenure were dogged by back problems and related health complications.
Some observers sense an oncoming crisis for the institution, as it tries to stabilize after Levine’s chronic health issues resulted in only inconsistent appearances by the conductor – and falling ticket sales that some think were related to Levine’s absence.
Other critics view now as an exciting time for the BSO, an opportunity build on Levine’s success with the BSO while adjusting old paradigms and reach new audiences.
WGBH’s Callie Crossley sat down with Lloyd Schwartz, Pulitzer Prize winning writer and classical music editor of The Boston Phoenix; Yehudi Wyner, a composer and pianist who won a Pulitzer Prize for composition in 2006; and our arts and culture contributor Alicia Anstead, to discuss Levine, the state of the BSO and what might come next. Here are some highlights of their discussion.
On Levine’s Musical Gifts
Wyner: Levine came from the deepest sources of classical music. He’s a marvelous pianist, and an overall musician of extraordinary gifts. Certainly not second to Leonard Bernstein in terms of his ability to interpret music, and to absorb it. The amount of absorption, the amount that a man like this has really digested, and retains, is universal. It’s like a compendium of classical music canon.
On Levine’s Program
Wyner: Almost all the great music directors have sooner or later come to a commissioning program of adventurous new pieces… the problem that came up with Jimmy, as far as audience was concerned, (was) that he immediately jumped to something that had not easily prepared and organically prepared by the Boston Symphony in the previous years. That is, a certain kind of very radical, sometimes theoretical music that Jimmy is very partial to. And sometimes that may be very great.
Moreover, he balanced programs. There was lots of music that was not new.
Schwartz: For me, the absolute high point of Levine’s tenure here was the year he did joining Beethoven and Schoenberg on the same programs. So that on one hand, you knew that some of the music was going to appeal to a larger audience and some people were going to resent having to sit through something they thought they didn’t want to hear. And yet, those concerts were so illuminating, because you could hear Schoenberg taking off from where Beethoven left off.
That was a brilliant idea, and maybe some of the BSO regulars resented that, but on the other hand, there was a whole new audience of both younger people who were really curious about this juxatopistion, and there were also people from the university music departments who had stopped going to the BSO because they were so bored with the program, and suddenly, filling the seats because there was an actual programming idea that they were interested in.
The State of the Orchestra
Anstead: With all respect to the difficulties that the BSO administration is in right now, in filling in these gaps, and that the orchestra members themselves are facing in morale, and also what Levine himself is experiencing medically – that’s all very difficult. What’s exciting, is that the BSO is actually in such a great position, to embrace a whole new world.
They have a robust online presence, with music that’s recorded there… The BSO is well-positioned, it’s one of the strongest orchestras in the country, if not one with the biggest budget.
Schwartz:Crisis is not quite the right word because partly – or maybe even mostly – Levine, when he came here, really transformed the orchestra. I’ve lived in Boston since 1962. I’ve been going to the BSO since 1962, I don’t think it has ever been in this good shape since I’ve been there.
Wyner: (The BSO management) are first class in their field, and they haven’t been sitting on – well, whatever you sit on – not thinking about the future.
What’s Required of His Replacement
Wyner: We tend to think of a conductor from the outside-in, but how do the members of the orchestra – or even someone like the BSO’s librarian – think of the conductor? Also, how does a conductor relate to the press? How does his image project in raising funds? How does he look on the cover of a brochure? The factors are innumerable. It’s not just how they wave their arm and the knowledge of the music.
Anstead: Artistic excellence is the most fundamental quality a new conductor will have to have. The face of music in Boston could of course be a woman. What would happen if someone like an Alondra De La Perra or a Dudamel took root and made cultural connections with younger people?
Schwartz:I believe that the future of classical music lies with women. It used to be thought that young women didn’t have the right kind of DNA to play Beethoven or Bach. But women are the largest constituencies in our music schools and they are becoming the majority of players. How long are they going to stand for the hegemony of the male leader?
We hope that whoever becomes the music director has broad taste, and that includes centempory music, 20th century music, and even early 21st century music
Anstead: They’re also going to have to understand that the audience is no longer a sit-still audience – that they are digitally driven, that they are immigrants, and that the digital world is her to stay
Role of BSO in the City and Going Forward
Wyner: A symphony orchestra in a city, a major symphony orchestra, stands as a kind of icon and a beacon of civilization. It is a measure by which the quality of intellectual and emotional life is regarded and judged…For that reason, even though it’s attractive to only a fairly small minority of people…nevertheless, it’s that kind of a moniker, that kind of an identification, ‘Yeah, Boston really is a classy city.
Anstead: It’s not quite like the Red Sox and it’s not quite like the Celtics, and yet, in terms of our global pride out in the world, not just locally but out in the world, the BSO has just as much reach. This is a world-class orchestra. It’s in the top 20 orchestras of the world. And that gives it a unique place, not just in local pride but national pride. And that makes it an organization that exchanges cultural information, cultural knowledge, reaches across all sorts of borders, which music does, of course. And I would put it on a par not only with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts but with the Boston Public Library System, in creating an important place for our city. Not only here, but beyond our town lines.
Schwartz: BSO performances are not only live performances at Symphony Hall. There are recordings, including some recent Grammy-winning recordings, that certainly are accessible and available to people who certainly aren’t anywhere near Boston and probably never will be…The outreach is huge. And in fact one of the triggers for this recent crisis is that the Boston Symphony Orchestra does go on tour outside of Boston, and there were scheduled performances, which are taking place but without the maestro, at Carnegie Hall, at the Kennedy Center, and at several other places in the northeast corridor. And the orchestra has certainly been to Europe.
Friday, March 4, 2011
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