James Levine: A Maestro At the Top of His Game

Classical music lovers do not, as a rule, follow their favorite performers with the obsessive attention to statistical achievement that sports fans lavish on their heroes. Itzhak Perlman has probably played the Beethoven Violin Concerto more times than Babe Ruth hit home runs, but who’s counting? Nevertheless, we have recently witnessed a local feat which strikes me as the musical equivalent of Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. I am referring to James Levine’s end-of-season conducting marathon from March 1 to May 6, during which he led 23 opera performances and a Young Artists Gala at the Met, conducted a Mahler’s Ninth at Carnegie Hall, collaborated in five recitals around town and, on back-to-back weekends in Carnegie, oversaw the Met Orchestra and Chorus and an international array of vocal superstars in Verdi’s Requiem and Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder. In one three-day stretch, the indefatigable maestro conducted Lulu on a Thursday night, Parsifal on the following night and Ariadne auf Naxos on the following afternoon, which means that he spent more than a third of that 36-hour period on the Met’s podium, navigating the orchestra and singers through 12 hours of fearsomely challenging music.

Since the death of Leonard Bernstein in 1990, there has been considerable lamentation about the vacuum in our musical life created by the departure of that protean figure. And yet Lenny’s successor has been with us all along in the roly-poly life force that is James Levine. The comparison is interestingly inexact: Mr. Levine, unlike his predecessor, is neither a composer nor a lecturer, only a musical performer. Unlike Bernstein, he is not a public figure: no television persona, no foot on Broadway, no Black Panther parties, no omnipresent swirl. An intensely private person, he is as guarded as Bernstein was porous. Scurrilous rumors about Wildean leanings have surfaced over the years and gone completely unsubstantiated, despite the best efforts of our most high-minded news organs (Time, The New York Times) to get to the bottom of them. More recent rumors about Mr. Levine-does he have Parkinson’s disease? Is he about to be named the next music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra?-have been similarly defeated by the man’s unsinkable presence. In New York’s musical life, he is our Rock of Gibraltar.

Onstage, Bernstein was the great enactor, showing the audience how to feel the music along with him; Mr. Levine is the great enabler, a mop-headed coachman of minimal body language whose feelings about the music are unreadable. Offstage, Bernstein was the maestro in a cape; Mr. Levine is the maestro with a towel over one shoulder. Like Lenny, however, Jimmy (as he is called by his associates) has taken what was once a good, if highly erratic orchestra and turned it into a consistently great one. The Met’s productions may be highly variable, the casts not always evenly top-notch, but one thing that Met-goers have been able to count on since Mr. Levine’s appointment as music director in 1976 is the ravishing solidity of the orchestra. Thanks to a superb array of first-chair players, the solo parts are invariably heard with lyrical expressiveness. The balance between sections is exemplary. The dramatic line of the opera-even when it becomes as dangerously attenuated as it did in the recent Parsifal-is always palpable and never slack. This is an orchestra that is not only a pleasure to listen to, but also one that feels intimately caught up with what’s happening onstage. Mr. Levine understands that opera is, above all, hot-blooded, and the brilliant warmth of his approach yields particularly rich dividends in the composers he does best: Verdi, Wagner and Berg. A Levine performance of even the hoariest work never seems shrouded in mist: From the moment he gives the first downbeat, we are brought face-to-face with the music, such that it becomes the central “character” of the night.

But there are some cracks in the mirror. Mr. Levine’s boundless helmsmanship has meant that we have been graced with very few appearances by other maestros of comparable ability. Too often, when the Met’s podium is occupied by a visiting conductor, the orchestra can sound merely slick and uninspired. Moreover, even Mr. Levine can be too much of a good thing: By now, his sure grip of the great masterpieces, though rewarding, has become predictable-at least to Met junkies like me. It has been too long since our ears were amazed by the likes of Carlos Kleiber, whose revelatory Der Rosenkavalier remains a touchstone of Strauss conducting in my memory. And is Mr. Levine’s understandable delight in his great ensemble in need of tempering? I have heard more than a few former Met stalwarts complain that their careers were shortened thanks to their efforts to be heard above the full-throttle sound he routinely leads the Met Orchestra to produce. In the final two performances of Mr. Levine’s marathon run a few weeks ago, he pushed the soloists to their limits, with results that were both glorious and punishing.

Certainly, I won’t forget the overwhelming sonic adventure that he made of Verdi’s Requiem. This greatest of Verdi’s works, the distillation of all that the composer knew about music’s capacity to evoke awe and sorrow, terror and tenderness, is mother’s milk to Mr. Levine. He marshaled his hugely populated orchestra and chorus with an Achillean virtuosity that was, literally, breathtaking. But the four soloists, whose voices must deliver those incomparable melodies over the mighty clamor, had, in some instances, a less happy time of it. The soprano Renée Fleming produced her usual supply of gloriously arcing notes, but the writing calls for the heft of a dramatic, or at least a spinto, soprano, and when it wasn’t soaring, Ms. Fleming’s voice-which can best be described as opulent and lyric-had difficulty being heard with consistency, particularly in the closing “Libera Me.” (The next day, it was revealed that she had been singing through a bout of tonsillitis.) Marcello Giordani, who has perhaps the finest Verdian top of any of today’s tenors, was also obliged to push himself and, especially in the middle register, his tone lost point and definition. The juggernaut bass of René Pape could bring down the walls of Jericho, but even he indulged in some rote bellowing in order to make his full presence felt. Which left only one singer, the great Russian mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina, to carry the honors with complete comfort. Hers is an astonishingly rich, secure instrument from bottom to top, and it’s a voice that always seems to have more in it than even the singer can use. In this respect, she is fully Mr. Levine’s match, and when she cut through the orchestral tumult without the slightest hint of strain, a smile broke out on the maestro’s cherubic face-the smile of a man at the top of his game.