I’m sure we all saw the front page story in The New York Times about the Metropolitan Opera orchestra and James Levine — about how some of the musicians think Levine can’t cut it any more.
In reaction, two prominent New York critics defended Levine. But in the flurry — “He conducts as well as he ever did!” “He’s lost it!” — that naturally followed the Times piece, I think we lost one crucial part of what’s going on. Even if the complaining musicians aren’t right, the mere fact that they’re complaining — and, above all, that they were willing to complain to the Times – poses a major problem for the Met.
Can we imagine what the mood was in the orchestra, after the story came out? The story appeared on a Saturday. The orchestra played not one, but two performances that day. The musicians who criticized Levine spoke anonymously, of course. So when the orchestra assembled to play the matinee, did the musicians all look at each other, wondering who had spoken? And was the process repeated when the musicians (not quite the same ones, either, because the Met has more than a standard-size orchestra, so the players can rotate) gathered again in the evening?
And what happened when the orchestra first played for Levine, after the story appeared? Did he look down the ranks of violins, wondering who’d ratted on him? The story, remember, was on the front page of the Times. That’s a major event. The Met, with deficits, with Joseph Volpe leaving, with declining ticket sales, with no clear artistic vision — it doesn’t need this new problem, revealed to the world in the most public way possible.
My take, for what it’s worth: Levine doesn’t conduct at the Met with the energy or focus that he used to have. But there could be many reasons for that, apart from any problem with Levine’s health, including boredom (on the musicians’ or Levine’s part, or both), or the simple, natural falloff that sometimes follows a peak.
But I wouldn’t dismiss the musicians’ view as quickly as some critics did. Yes, musicians can’t always judge the effect of their performances. But if they think something’s wrong with a conductor, there usually is. I remember, years ago, when Lukas Foss was music director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic (then called the Brooklyn Philharmonia). Musicians complained about him, saying he didn’t have a clear beat. I thought his performances were wonderfully musicial, but I could also see, and hear, what the musicians didn’t like; the performances, no matter how much I liked them, were certainly sloppy.
Or think of the New York Philharmonic. I’m hardly alone in finding Lorin Maazel cold. Yet the musicians love him, because of his conducting technique. Are they wrong? Not factually — anyone can hear that they play better, with more clarity and precision, than they have in many years.
One final warning, though: We shouldn’t jump to conclusions. Levine conducted members of the Met orchestra last month at a ceremony honoring Carnegie Hall’s late executive director, Robert Harth. He seemed very frail. Tongues wagged. But when I mentioned this to someone who works at the Met, I heard in response, “But I’ve seen him bound away from rehearsals and performances with the energy of a 17 year-old!”
(I saw Götterdämmerung at the Met on May 1, with Levine conducting; the first act was pretty messy, and none too powerful. Siegfried’s entrance in the Gibichung scene, with the motif of the curse screaming from the orchestra, ought to sound crushing; instead it fell flat. But this was the orchestra’s second performance that day, after a matinee of Rusalka, so who knows what the problem was? The second and third acts were much stronger; the second act, in fact, was quite hot. One telling moment: Brünnhilde’s line “Er zwang mir Lust und Liebe ab” in the second act, sung freely by the singer with the first and second violins doubling her melody in thirds. With hairtrigger accuracy, Levine kept the violins exactly with the singer, something he couldn’t have done if his beat had sagged or gotten invisible just then.
(I compared parts of the performance to the Met’s DVD, recorded with Levine in the mid-80s. One section that fell flat on May 1, the Hagen-Alberich scene at the start of Act 2, was much more powerful on the DVD. But then the Alberich was much better. I found the Immolation Scene a little wan on May 1, but it seemed that way on the DVD, too. I think it’s because Levine — correctly, if you ask me — hears that scene as the coda of the opera, or maybe of the entire Ring, and not as a separate structure with its own momentum. But maybe he takes that view too far. One astonishing, impressive fact: The tempi, in every place I compared them, seemed exactly the same in both performances. Again that might be evidence that Levine is in control.
(And this brings out something familiar but curious, about perception and memory. Neither are always reliable. Some people thought Levine had speeded up, that he’d lost the famous spaciousness he’s brought to Wagner in the past. But, as I’ve said, the tempi seemed exactly the same.)