Two weeks ago I attended the “Times Talk” interview of conductor James Levine. (It was my first time inside the new New York Times building on 41st Street. The “Times Talks” hall, with its floor-to-ceiling upstage windows aerily looking out onto a courtyard, is a pleasantly un-Times Square-ish affair.) I’m second to none in my admiration of Maestro Levine’s manifold accomplishments. To the extent I have one, he’s my personal favorite conductor. To me, being at the Met and hearing him conduct the fabulous Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is one of the greatest privileges in today’s music world. The diaphanous pianissimo of the orchestra in a Pelléas a few seasons back—ineffably delicate, yet carrying throughout the house—still lingers not only in my ears but in my eyes: I can still see Levine’s subtle podium cues. Years earlier, I attended a Kathleen Battle lieder recital at Alice Tully with Levine accompanying at the piano. He was, uncannily, her invisible conductor. It was the greatest performance by a piano accompanist I ever heard in my life.
During the Rudolf Bing years the playing of the orchestra was rarely sumptuous, and often much less (although I did attend the magnificent Karajan Walküre in my youth, a couple of years after the new house opened.) Levine’s band is an outstanding orchestra not only under his but under every guest conductor’s baton, including Placido Domingo’s. Bing brought in The Rake’s Progress, but for the most part his regime was chestnuts and warhorses, its only premieres the two Samuel Barber operas and the recently NYCO-revived Martin David Levy Mourning Becomes Electra. (The Sacco and Vanzetti commission to Marc Blitzstein was aborted by Blitzstein’s death, its only version completed years later, elsewhere, by Leonard Lehrman). But at Levine’s Met, we’ve had Lulu, Mahagonny, much Janáček, Busoni’s Doktor Faust, Prokofiev’s War and Peace, Porgy and Bess (finally), and new operas by Philip Glass, John Corigliano, John Harbison, and Tobias Picker.
Levine’s interlocutor during the “Times Talk” was Anthony Tommasini, who, a good new music champion himself, dutifully pointed out to the audience Levine’s performances and championship, with the BSO and other orchestras, of the supposedly audience-unfriendly music of Carter, Babbitt, and Wuorinen. Tommasini’s point emboldened one person amid the deferential, even adulatory questioners at talk’s end to ask: Would Levine ever conduct Henze? Ah, that “n” word: “new” music!
Tommasini had to explain to the audience who Henze was! Levine answered that he likes Henze but must make triage decisions. He said he has a “horror” of superficial involvement and dabbling; “I’m not sure I could commit to a new opera premiere every year,” he added, and hold to the high standards of preparation he demands of himself. In further support of this, he cited two composers whose music he loves but won’t conduct because he doesn’t feel the right affinity: Shostakovitch and Bruckner. Why doesn’t he premiere the work of younger, newer composers? Because, he said, (here I’m paraphrasing) he has only a small slice of quality time for new music, and he chooses to give most of it to the older Turks of the Second Viennese School, who both need it and have been around longer. And he likes their music, anyway.
I thoroughly believed Maestro Levine’s reply. (By the way, his enormous energy and quickness throughout the talk dispelled any anxieties about his health.) Yet later that day I heard rumbling within me the famous criticism of Toscanini levelled by Virgil Thomson and seconded by Joseph Horowitz: that a conductor who doesn’t continually premiere the new works of his day has defaulted from the full measure of his power to make musical history. (Even Toscanini, early on, premiered Puccini.) I’m not even faintly suggesting here that Levine has dropped the baton of championship. Levine has done superb service to art as an exponent of certain particular contemporary composers who need friends like him in high places—not just because their scores demand the stupendous musicianship he brings, but because his performances of them stamp the imprimatur of the mainstream, bringing on them a kind of ultimate benediction, a seal of approval.
The fact remains that the single most career-making figure for any new composer is an orchestra conductor who decides to champion him. Leopold Stokowski presented not only American premieres of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Berg before 1935, but performances of Cowell, Ornstein, and Varèse before those composers were old. Koussevitsky made Aaron Copland in America when Copland was in effect a graduate student, and later made several other American composers when they were still in their 30s and 40s. Yes, “made” in the musical mafia sense. So, perhaps, has Robert Spano done for Jennifer Higdon, and Esa-Pekka Salonen for Steven Stucky. Neither composer had been around decades like Elliott Carter or Milton Babbitt, but they found important conductors to champion them now, not tomorrow. If a James Levine understandably can’t place his not unlimited resources there, somebody’s gotta.
So why is this happening nowadays so sporadically? It seems to me that most of those conductors who do premiere new music regularly are spreading their favors among many, rather than championing a favorite dark horse. Or am I wrong?