Eliciting Notes in Shining Armor:
As James Levine becomes Music Director of the BSO,
Greg Waxberg reflects on what separates him from the rest

When James Levine stepped onto the podium at the Metropolitan Opera House on Saturday, April 10, 1993, I felt like I was seeing my best friend for the first time. I, age 15, was sitting in the ninth row of Orchestra, to the left of center, for a matinee of Richard Wagner’s Siegfried. The moment his smiling face appeared above the partition that separates the orchestra pit from the seats, and he gestured to the orchestra to stand, marked the first time I saw him in person. I had watched his entrance many times on television, and, there he was, a few feet from me, with the spotlight shining.

The Maestro was about to conduct for me.

That performance of Siegfried was my first Ring opera in the theater. One of my first encounters with opera was Der Ring des Nibelungen, thanks to the 1990 Met telecast. A few days after Götterdämmerung aired, I was still so mesmerized that I watched the tapes, and the Maestro immediately got my attention, especially with Die Walküre and Siegfried. During the former, his expressions and gestures were animated for the storm, and completely calm for…the calm. For Siegfried, it astonished me how every gesture matched a note, like a plucked string, or helped shape a note, like a growl in the horns. It was as if I could see the music emanating from his baton and body language.

Thus, as I sat in the darkened auditorium, with the front of his face and his arms illuminated by the light from his lectern, I watched him make those gestures all over again, each one still meticulous.

This rapture with Levine’s conducting is from the perspective of a music-lover who does not know most of the jargon that musicians use, nor the notes. I do consider myself knowledgeable when it comes to analyzing a composer’s techniques (such as for program notes), knowing a healthy voice when I hear one and having a reasonable grasp on the orchestration of music I know well. So, while I am unable to speak of Levine’s work in technical terms, I can speak of his work as one who loves a chill down my back and a tear in my eye from the interpretation.

I don’t mean to imply that Levine’s conducting, or Levine the person, is superior to the orchestra or music. I know that’s not true. Yet, because my maternal grandfather, Hermann Herz, was a conductor, and because I have definite ideas about how I want music to sound, I have a keen interest in conductors, and Levine’s interpretations and style gel with how I envision a conductor leading an orchestra. Two statements probably come to mind: you might be thinking Levine was the first conductor I saw, so it would be easy for me to feel this way, and I can’t possibly like every interpretative decision he makes.

To the first, Levine was not the first conductor I saw; I heard several concerts by the New York Philharmonic before I was introduced to opera. To the second, no I don’t. But the difference is that, when another conductor does something I don’t like, I say, “I don’t like it.” When Levine does something I don’t like, I say, “there must be a reason.” Why? Because he has done enough that I do like. But not agreeing with him happens very infrequently. With few exceptions, his approach hits the spot.

This would be a good time to try to describe what I listen for in music. Overall, two characteristics: slow tempi and vigorous use of percussion. Specifically, I want to feel that I’ve heard every ounce of emotion and color. Maybe an arch in the horns…the jolt of thunderous timpani…the majesty of soaring strings...the release of a cymbal crash…the pouring forth of a huge chorus. I often feel that I’m missing something when somebody else conducts.

A few examples of Levine “moments”: the Scarpia chords from Tosca, Wotan’s farewell in Die Walküre and the trio from Der Rosenkavalier. The chords are a chronic source of frustration, not only because Tosca is one of my favorite operas, but also because they seem to give other conductors trouble. Maybe trouble isn’t the word, but the chords often sound bland and weak. Not with Levine. His chords are crisp, loud and nasty, with thunderous timpani and a sweep that makes them extra jarring.

During Wotan’s farewell to Brünnhilde, there is a motif that begins after his phrase “freer than I, a God.” The swells of sound are so gut-wrenching that it sounds like the orchestra is crying, in bursts of tears. This, like the Liebestod in Tristan und Isolde, is music that must be taken, slowly, to the climax. Our bodies react physically to music, and it is utterly satisfying when the orchestra carries these melodies to the threshold, where there is nowhere else to go. This doesn’t necessarily mean loud. It’s like a clenched hand: you clench so hard that you need the release. The spectacular aspect of Wagner’s music, which Levine captures, is that even the release is spine tingling.

The trio from Der Rosenkavalier is based on the ethereal combination of three female voices, with the orchestra supporting them, gradually matching the swirling emotions of the Marschallin, Octavian and Sophie. Talking about tempo is subjective, and I understand those who prefer faster speeds. People say, when referring to Wagner or Richard Strauss — both known for thick orchestration — that the music can sound lethargic, that it doesn’t have life or energy. Or that a Johann Strauss waltz should be brisk because it’s a waltz. I couldn’t disagree more.

To my ears, energy and vitality have nothing to do with speed. They have to do with the music speaking to me, and music can’t speak to me unless I hear the notes given their proper breathing space. I can’t think of any “fast” music that I wouldn’t prefer — or haven’t liked — hearing slower. Slow is exciting, if done well. Levine said on a Met broadcast, “any dodo can be exciting playing loud.” I would also say, “any dodo can be exciting playing fast.”

In Wagner, “loud” or “fast” is only a word. His Ring music, from the barely audible beginning of Das Rheingold to the sublime chorus of woodwinds that closes Götterdämmerung, is delicate, serene, mournful, triumphant, exclamatory, ecstatic and so on. From the invisible Alberich taunting Mime in Rheingold, to the Act II Prelude of Die Walküre, to the Act I Prelude of Siegfried, to Siegfried’s "Rhine Journey" and the Immolation Scene from Götterdämmerung, Wagner created such delicious syntheses of leitmotifs that you want to savor every second. During recent performances, Levine surpassed himself with the nuances he brought to the score, especially when he pushed the music to its limits.

As Götterdämmerung wound its way to the collapse of the world, I anticipated what is perhaps my favorite interlude in the cycle, Siegfried’s "Funeral March." To use the word “awesome” or “majestic” would be sufficient if I were describing Levine’s previous performances of it. This rendition of the funeral music was spellbinding; it did not let go. Shortly after Siegfried sings his last words, there are three short, sharp upward runs in the strings, each one more pronounced than the previous, followed by the death chords in the timpani and brass. The timpani were so loud that I felt myself jump. A minute or two later, there is a tremendous climax in the full orchestra before the death chords are played by the cymbals. Levine took that climax as far as I thought it could go, filling the auditorium with orchestral splendor, and then took it further. The timpani peaked and then, wham, cymbals. I have never heard that music played with such ferocity.

From my first experience hearing and seeing James Levine live, with Siegfried, to my most recent experience hearing and seeing him live, with Götterdämmerung on May 8, 2004, his artistry continues to prove what happens when a note shines. The cymbals and ovations are still echoing in my ears.

Greg Waxberg is Music Director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting Radio. He has written for San Francisco Opera, Mississippi Opera, the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra and the Gulf Coast Symphony Orchestra.

Photos: James Levine (© Koichi Miura) and Ring Cycle - courtesy, Metropolitan Opera

Related LINKS in FanFaire: Richard Wagner The Ring Cycle Scenes from the Met Ring Ring at the Met 1997
Hildegard Behrens' Brunnhilde Met Orchestra's Das Lied von der Erde
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