Tuesday, March 8, 2011

More on James Levine, his 40 Years at The Met and calls to turn in his keys...

Maestro Levine on the Podium in Boston
A stunning new book is set to hit the shelves. James Levine: 40 Years at The Metropolitan Opera, an extraordinary insider’s view of the legendary conductor’s Met career, illustrated with vivid historic photographs, will be published by Amadeus Press on May 3, and available for $32 at the Met Opera Shop and national retailers. Marking the 40th anniversary of Met Music Director James Levine’s company debut on June 5, 1971, the book celebrates his unparalleled artistic achievements through commentary by the maestro himself, as well as anecdotes and tributes from many of the great artists who have performed with him.

In this new book, readers will be taken behind the scenes as Levine shares his many artistic triumphs, the singular low point of his career in 1980, and challenges he has faced over four decades at the Met, including introducing works to the Met repertoire and developing the company’s orchestra and chorus. He reminisces about remarkable moments such as the phone call from tenor Richard Tucker minutes before his debut (“Jim, it’s Richard. Knock ’em dead.”), Kiri Te Kanawa’s transformation from unknown to star in her debut, the unforgettable farewell performance of Leontyne Price, and the historic prank Levine played on the great Luciano Pavarotti – in full view of the Met audience.

Some of opera’s most illustrious stars contribute personal stories and recollections. Martina Arroyo, Stephanie Blythe, Natalie Dessay, Renée Fleming, Mirella Freni, Marilyn Horne, Sherrill Milnes, James Morris, Jessye Norman, René Pape, Renata Scotto, Teresa Stratas, Frederica von Stade, and many others relive first encounters with the maestro and look back on their musical partnerships. In a special essay, Plácido Domingo details the friendship and incomparable artistic collaboration he has shared with Levine for over 40 years. Conductors Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez comment on working with the Met’s unrivaled orchestra. Director Franco Zeffirelli explains why he “would jump out of bed at midnight to go work with Jimmy,” while Otto Schenk shares the secrets of their long and successful association. All of these colorful accounts are complemented by images of performances, rehearsals, curtain calls, and backstage moments.

“For 40 years at the Met, Maestro Levine has been enveloping artists with his energy and warmth,” said Met General Manager Peter Gelb, who has worked closely with Levine for almost 25 years and contributes the book’s foreword. “This book overflows with their loving tributes and offers a revealing look at the man behind the music. It is immediately clear that Jim is not only one of the true conducting legends of all time, but also the most beloved.”

Essential reading for all lovers of opera and classical music, the book provides a generous glimpse into the backstage workings of the world’s busiest opera company, a revealing exploration of the art form, and an intimate portrait of one of opera’s artistic giants.

Maestro Levine at The Met in 2009 - Mary Altaffer, AP
This book and subsequent celebration of the Maestro's monumental 40 years at The Met both come on the heels of critics beginning to sound the trumpet for his resignation - following his resignation from the Boston Symphony Orchestra this week. As I reported yesterday, things aren't going well for Maestro - physically speaking. I suggested perhaps pulling back his conducting and taking a more administrative role. I also pondered whether or not it was time for Maestro Levine to step across the street and into more teaching at his beloved Juilliard. Justin Davidson of NY Magazine, however, goes a little beyond that - boldly calling for Maestro Levine to "hand the keys to someone else." Davidson says:
Conducting an orchestra is a surprisingly athletic daily discipline, which is one reason so many maestros remain lithe and youthful as they age. But Levine, who is only 67 but moves with the stiffness of a much older man, looks as if he spent his waking hours manipulating a joystick rather than wielding a conductor’s baton.

The odd thing about his infirmities is that the sounds he draws out of his musicians have such vigorous physicality. He can nudge a crescendo gradually from a barely detectable rumble into a seismic event. He slows certain Wagner passages down to the brink of collapse but keeps them unbearably taut. In Verdi’s more ominous passages, you can hear a leviathan’s slouch. And always, he gets orchestral musicians to phrase like singers, with suppleness and breath.

Whenever he’s returned from convalescence in recent years, Levine has seemed undimmed: You can’t hear a consistent decline. But conducting is a form of leadership, and the current conviction flowing from him has flickered. In 2009, Boston Globe critic Jeremy Eichler remarked that “the more lingering concern is the state of Levine’s and the BSO’s larger artistic vision.” At the Met, he has gradually relinquished the role of artistic counterweight to the general manager: This is Peter Gelb’s Met now; Levine only works there...

... The Met has more leeway to renegotiate a relationship with a musician who’s given it 40 astounding years and who still has plenty to offer on the podium even if he’s no longer in charge. But even if he’s in fine fettle for the anniversary gala on May 1, the time has come to make him conductor laureate for life and hand the keys to someone else.
Mmmmmm - I'm not convinced that handing the keys to someone else is the right choice. Scaling back the conducting is one thing, giving up his artistic vision for The Met (even if it is diminished by The Met's current and more commercially inclined administration) doesn't have to be the only option. I don't believe it is that cut-and-dried of a situation.

For more about Maestro Levine's incredible knowledge and vision, you must ... and I mean *must* ... read this article from 2006 called: "Hey, Baby, It's Jimmy..."

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