Levine leads MET Orchestra in a moving, valedictory “Pathetique”
During the MET Orchestra’s performance of the emotional finale of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 Thursday night at Carnegie Hall, one couldn’t help but hear the tremendously expressive, musical playing as a valedictory for Metropolitan Opera music director James Levine.
Levine, of course, announced his retirement from the Met directorship—though not from conducting—earlier this spring. His continuing health problems, especially Parkinson’s disease, have finally put a limit on his career. On stage at Carnegie, without the high walls of the orchestra pit and the intervening audience to obscure the view, the physical limitations of his conducting were clear and significant. The bittersweet and intensely moving part, appropriately channeled through the “Pathétique” Symphony, was that his strengths were on full display as well.
Before Symphony No. 6, the orchestra opened with the overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila by Mikhail Glinka, then played Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, with Evgeny Kissin. Everything had the energy and passion that come out of a straightforward understanding of, and love for, the music.
Add to that a gorgeous, dark, velvety string sound, colorful woodwinds, and forceful brass, and one had a substantial demonstration of Levine’s legacy. He made the MET Orchestra into the fine concert ensemble it is today, and the force of their performances is a direct result of his leadership.
The overture exploded out of the gate. The players hurtled along in an exciting near pell-mell, but the music remained well-shaped. This was characteristic Levine energy—powerful but not bludgeoning—muscled and supple like a great, graceful cat.
The orchestra’s sheer sound and strength don’t need fast tempos to be exciting and fulfilling. Backing Kissin, their playing was a kind of exaltation of the weight in the music. They eschewed the easy temptations of sentimentality for the feeling that every phrase and passage was there to be savored.
Kissin produced an unusual amount of tension and drama in the brief, opening piano solo. Throughout, he played Rachmaninoff’s deceptively simple phrases—they always seem to have a breathing point a little earlier or later than one expects—with what seemed the ideal length, the right emphasis on the rising and falling shapes.
There were no histrionics, no indulgences. Kissin played with a touch of cool that led the way to a performance that revealed the quality of the music, which is beautiful and structurally firm, expressively rich without needing the bathos of a narrative.
The audience responded with eight or so ovations. Following that, and two slightly over-the-top encores—Rachmaninoff’s Étude-tableau Op. 39, No. 5, and Tchaikovsky’s “Natha Waltz”—came the “Pathétique.”
This was a moving performance that came out of a deep place and explored expressions of conflict and anguish that are infrequently touched on in the concert hall. William Short played the opening bassoon line with a veneer of control over seething intensity, and this presaged the symphony as a whole.
The orchestra played with fervor and a command that, as with the Rachmaninoff, eschewed interpretive dramatics for the drama in the music itself. When the music can hold so many contradictory ideas and experiences at once, and express them all with commitment and the honesty to admit that some things can be felt but never understood, the best and most moral choice is to play one’s heart out.
That the orchestra did (clarinetist Jessica Phillips was particularly outstanding in the first movement). It seemed both easy and difficult in the circumstances; easy to honor Tchaikovsky’s music and Levine’s leadership, difficult to view the end that is in sight.
Levine clearly has difficulty gripping the baton—he lost it during the symphony and co-concertmaster Laura Hamilton had to pick it up and return it to him—and his left hand is limited to two or three expressive indications. He is scheduled to conduct this orchestra again in a week, and will lead some performances at the Met next season, but the possibility that each of these might be the last hangs in the air.
For many in the audience, this might very well have been the last time they will witness a Levine performance. Perhaps that is why after the wrenching last pages, and the hushed final chord, there was that rarest of things in New York City concert halls, a patient stillness.
The MET Orchestra plays Strauss, with David Robertson conducting, and soprano Renée Fleming, 3 p.m. Sunday. James Levine leads excerpts from Wagner’s Ring, with Christine Goerke and Stefan Vinke 8 p.m. May 26. carnegiehall.org