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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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,