Levine

Last night (Saturday) I went to hear Götterdämmerung at the Met. When Levine came out to conduct, the crowd gave him the largest, warmest ovation I think I’ve ever heard for a conductor at the start of an opera. Now, maybe they were so friendly because it was the last night of the season, or because it was the last night of the last Ring cycle (certainly many people there were hearing all four operas, and for them Levine’s appearance at the start wasn’t the beginning of something new, but the continuation of something wonderful).

But I’d guess the loyal Met audience was also reacting to the Times story of a week before, about how some (many?) of the musicians in the orchestra didn’t think Levine could cut it any more. Encouraged, perhaps, by critics in both Newsday and the Times, who’d contradicted the musicians and said that Levine is still brilliant, the audience might have been giving Levine its own support. “Yo, Jimmy! We still love you!” For which I’d hardly blame them, if that’s how they feel.

But clearly something pretty intense is going on, inside that orchestra. The musicians who talked to the Times, anonymously, must have felt very strongly that something was wrong. Why else would they talk to the press? Orchestral musicians almost never do that. So it’s fine to say, as some people have, that musicians can’t always tell how good (or bad) a performance is. But you still have to explain why those musicians cared so much about what they see as Levine’s deterioration. What made them go to the press? (Or, at least, speak to the reporter when she approached them.)

The simplest theory is that things are, in fact, really bad, that Levine — some of the time, anyway — isn’t giving the orchestra a clear enough beat. Musicians aren’t often wrong when they say that, especially if they’re talking about how a conductor’s beat has changed. It’s a fairly objective thing; either a beat is clear or it isn’t. And while of course we hear about conductors like, famously, Furtwangler (though I think Koussevitsky was worse) whose beat was indecipherable, and even so their orchestras stayed together, in those cases the orchestras played with those conductors a lot, and there’s no record (or at least none I’ve ever seen) that the musicians had varying views. You don’t find members of the long-ago Berlin Philharmonic saying, “Everybody’s wrong! Furtwangler’s beat really WAS clear!”

And of course it’s true that orchestral musicians can’t always judge the overall effect of performances they give, though they’re not going to be wrong about tehcnical matters. Musicians won’t often debate whether they were in tune, or whether their rhythm was accurate. “We played those triplets exactly together!” “No, we didn’t!” That’s not a dispute you’re likely to hear, at least from musicians in a top-class orchestra.

So what musicians might not judge right — or at least not judge the same as some sophisticated listeners — is the feeling in their performance. The musicians in the New York Philharmonic love playing for Lorin Maazel; many people in the audience find the performances cold. But even then, even if you’re one of the people left cold, you can hear what the musicians love. By any musicianly measure — intonation, balance, ensemble, tone quality — the Philharmonic has never sounded better. So when musicians and sophisticated listeners disagree about a performance, neither side is wrong. They’re just hearing different things. I used to like Lukas Foss, when he conducted the Brooklyn Philharmonic. The musicians complained about him, said he wasn’t clear or precise. And I could hear that — but I thought the performances, sloppy as they could be, were musical.

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