Appropriate Conduct? The Maestro in America in the Year 2001

Whether or not Cincinnati-born conductor James Levine becomes the next music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, as has been widely predicted, it is clear that he is a force to be reckoned with in the realm of contemporary music programming. Levine, 57, has spent much of his career in entrenched the world of opera, joining the Metropolitan Opera in 1973 as principal conductor, becoming its music director in 1976 and artistic director in 1986. As a result, he has been saddled with the correlative artistic requirements of any major repertory company and the overall antipathy of opera audiences for too many new works.

Leading The Met Orchestra and Chamber Ensemble

Yet since the mid-1990s, Levine has also tread a more adventurous course with the Met Orchestra and Chamber Ensemble. With an annual series at Carnegie Hall and an active touring schedule, the Met Orchestra has given the other major orchestra across Lincoln Center Plaza a run for its money not only in terms of sheer musical accomplishment but in presenting fresh, compelling programs.

In the 2000-01 Season, for example, the Met Orchestra is observing the 50th anniversary of Schoenberg’s death with an afternoon devoted to his mighty Gurrelieder at Carnegie Hall. Things heat up in the 2001-02 season as Levine begins his portion of Carnegie Hall’s "Perspectives" concerts, the ongoing series in which major artists are invited to devise a series of programs intended to put modern music in a wider historical framework.

The Met Orchestra’s three-concert 2001-02 Carnegie Hall series will feature the world premiere of William Bolcom’s Symphonic Concerto juxtaposed with works by Ravel, Strauss and Mozart; and Berg’s Seven Early Songs (with soprano Renée Fleming) alongside Mahler and Beethoven. With the Met Chamber Ensemble, Levine leads all-Schoenberg and all-Stravinsky programs as well as an all-Bach program. He also brings his Munich Philharmonic Orchestra to New York where his first concert as its chief conductor in 1999 featured the European premiere of Tobias Picker’s Symphony No. 2. The Carnegie programs will juxtapose John Harbison’s Symphony No. 3 and Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto with Mozart and Strauss; and works by Ives and Ligeti with Beethoven and Brahms.

The Metropolitan Opera

The problematic subject of 20th-century opera at the Met bears special witness as indicative of Levine’s tastes and sense of advocacy. In general, he has steered one of two courses. On one hand, he has been a long-time proponent of the Second Viennese School, giving either company premieres or major revivals of such works as Berg’s Lulu and Wozzeck, Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron. On CD, he has recorded the Suite from Lulu and excerpts from Wozzeck for Sony Classical, and Schoenberg’s Erwartung with Jessye Norman for Philips.

On the other hand, Levine has had a more difficult time overcoming the inertia of a traditionalist public who shuns English-language opera. During his tenure, he has given the company premiere of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and world premieres of Philip Glass’s The Voyage, John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, and John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby, which returns in the 2001-02 season. Each were mixed successes in their own right, but they demonstrated that the intent was there. The Met also recently announced two new commissions-by Tan Dun and Tobias Picker-to be conducted by Levine in the next few seasons.

Courting the Maestro

People familiar with the discussions in Boston say that, despite talk that Levine is considering stepping down from the Met, perhaps in favor of Valery Gergiev, he has expressed no plans to leave and recently signed a new contract that expires in 2005. That said, he has long been reported interested in an American symphonic podium he could call his own and reshape to his musical image.

In any case, this much is clear: If history is any indication, wherever Levine ends up, audiences can look forward to plenty of grand choral works (featuring star-studded vocal casts), a healthy dose of American composers, along the lines of Corigliano, Harbison, Bolcom, Picker and Glass, and staples of early modernism beside the 19th-century canon. There could be much worse things to ask for.

From Appropriate Conduct? The Maestro in America in the Year 2001
by Brian Wise
© 2001 NewMusicBox