Sunday, March 21, 2021

Levine's Reputation

Lincoln Center Fountain
Photo by Lisa Hirsch

The various obituaries for the late James Levine are heaping praise on him, and honestly, you should be asking yourself how much of this is even deserved.

The over-inflation of James Levine's reputation comes from various sources. Back when he stepped down as Music Director, Anthony Tommasini praised his interest in modern music and expansion of the repertory, citing Pelleas et Melisande (1902) and Berg's operas (1922; 1937) as evidence. Come ON.

The Met continues this on their home page, where they state the following:
Celebrated for shaping the Met Orchestra and Chorus into the finest in the world, he was also responsible for considerably expanding the Met repertoire. Levine conducted the first-ever Met performances of Mozart’s Idomeneo and La Clemenza di Tito, Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, Verdi’s I Vespri SicilianiI Lombardi and Stiffelio, Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Moses und Aron, Berg’s Lulu, Rossini’s La Cenerentola, and Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, as well as the world premieres of John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles and John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby.

There's plenty of bullshit in that quotation. The Met Orchestra is a terrific group, for sure, the equal of the best American and European orchestras. Saying it's the "first in the world" seems to me to be stretching things, owing to the many, many superb ensembles performing today.

The Chorus is an excellent group, though maybe not as great as, say, the amazing Bayreuth Festival chorus, not to mention this key point: the Met's chorus masters train the chorus, not the music director. The current chorus master is Donald Palumbo; his immediate predecessor was Raymond Hughes; before that was the legendary David Stivender. My recollection is that Stivender should get a lot of credit for the group's excellence and I know that Palumbo is considered to be a terrific musician and chorus master.

If those are all the Met premieres that Levine conducted, I would call that pathetic for his 45-year tenure. I count fifteen (15) operas. They weren't the only Met / world premieres between 1972 and 2017 by any means, and presumably Levine gets some credit for changes to the rep. With a schedule of 20-25 operas annually, though, a conductor who was truly dedicated to expanding the repertory would have found more works new to the Met to lead. 

It's also important to remember that Levine stated publicly and has been widely quoted as saying that there just weren't enough new operas that were good enough for the Met. This is also total bullshit, to which the only proper response was "maybe you should get out a little more, Jimmy." Under Levine, the Met managed to perform its second opera composed by a woman, more than a century since the first, and managed to not perform any operas composed by Black people, although the company did manage to commission and perform Tan Dun's The First Emperor.

But the Met was late to an awful lot: the company commissioned Philip Glass's The Voyage, then waited until 2008 for Satyagraha (premiered in 1979) and 2019 for Akhnaten (premiered in 1984). They were decades behind other groups, both production originated at the ENO, and both have been extremely popular. John Adams's Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghofer had long waits, though Doctor Atomic made it to the Met stage only three years after its first performances in San Francisco.

Their Janacek record is also terrible! Except for the two 1925 performances of Jenufa, San Francisco was ahead of the Met in performing The Makropulos Case, Kat'a Kabanova, and modern performances of Jenufa. We've had The Cunning Little Vixen, but (alas) not From the House of the Dead, where the Met did perform it in 2009.

We need also to take a look at Levine's record as music director of the Boston Symphony. I did, the other day, and while his record of performing new music there was better than I thought, it was also narrowly focused. He performed works by Bolcolm, Carter, Ligeti, Wuorinen, Sessions, Harbison, Lutoslawski, Messiaen, Babbitt, Perle, Schuller, Foss, Lieberson, Dawe, Duttileux, Barber, Poulenc, Milhaud among post-war and living composers, plus a fair bit of Berg and Schoenberg.

I would have gone to most of the concerts featuring those composers, but he missed an awful lot of good composers. (You can check this yourself at the BSO's performance archive.)

Lastly, here's Peter Gelb:

“No artist in the 137-year history of the Met had as profound an impact as James Levine,” Peter Gelb, the company’s general manager, said in a statement. “He raised the Met’s musical standards to new and greater heights during a tenure that spanned five decades.”

It's difficult to compare the impact and influence of artists working in very different periods, and clearly Gelb means "on the Met", but I must note that the Met's chief conductors included Arturo Toscanini, who had a profound impact on orchestral quality and was a champion of new music in the 19th and early 20th centuries, however seemingly conservative he became as he aged. And you can currently find plenty of criticism of Levine's actual conducting, from interpretive blandness to technical deterioration starting in the 1990s, to the point that for at least part of this century, the orchestra was following the concertmaster rather than Levine. Why would a big institution like the Met keep a music director who was losing the ability to conduct? (Toscanini retired from the NBC Symphony after one memory lapse that we know of.) Well, that's an interesting question, now, isn't it.

1 comment:

David Bratman said...

I think that, when judging the actual conducting, we need to draw a distinction between Levine of the health problems (which includes all of his Boston Symphony tenure) and the earlier Levine. If his repertoire was narrow, that's a common flaw among conductors who delve deeply into the standard repertoire. Levine's reputation was of complete command over a wide variety of standard material, of being tremendously hard-working, and easy and agreeable to work with.

I think it's necessary to understand and acknowledge this, because I believe that these virtues were the reason his sexual abuses were so determinedly overlooked. His artistic value was so great that they'd brush anything else under the table. That's especially evident in the Ben Miller article you sent me.

But if anyone is minded to excuse this separation on the grounds that on-podium and off-podium behavior are unconnected things, turn to the Levine of the health problems and the same thing is happening: he's valued so much that both the Met and the BSO were willing to overlook problems that rose to a grotesque level, and this time the problems did affect his conducting, but it took the longest time before anyone was willing to admit it, especially because Levine took the same tack towards his health problems as he did towards the abuse allegations: ignore it and, if forced to confront it, deny and look wounded as long as possible.

Same thing. And it's by understanding this syndrome of response that we can best be prepared to stop someone like this again in the future.