Levine Celebration: Emeritus Musings

by Greg Zuber, principal percussionist

This article first appeared in the June 2016 issue of Senza Sordino. It is reposted here with permission.

I joined the MET Orchestra in 1986. James Levine has been the Music Director for my entire tenure. In fact, he has been Music Director for the entire tenure of every current orchestra member with the exception of Violist Marilyn Stroh, who joined in 1960.

Upon joining the orchestra, one thing that immediately impressed me was the incredible energy and intensity the orchestra brought to our performances with James Levine conducting. Another was the unique sound the orchestra achieved with Jimmy on the podium. We had taut ensemble precision with a dynamic range that extended from the most delicate chamber music pianissimos to heavy-metal rock concert-like volumes that were viscerally exciting to experience. Mozart was never staid and proper but took on a vital, living quality, from tender and expressive to frenetic and muscular. The biggest Wagnerian scenes achieved the most intense sonic expression. Levine insisted that the brass maintain a round, burnished sound through the loudest dynamics, the strings play with the thickest velvety sound as well as the fastest arm-cramping tremolos and everyone phrase with a gutsy, dug-in tone quality, that the bass never overwhelm the treble, and that the melody always lead in the most singing style. “Make it to go up!” and “More organic!” were common eclectic directives.

Levine made his Met debut in 1971 with a performance of Puccini’s Tosca. As a young, modern, new breed of American conductor, Levine for many years eschewed the pretense of the title Maestro, preferring to be called by his first name, Jim or Jimmy. He was appointed Principal Conductor in 1972 and Music Director in 1976. Ten years later, he was appointed Artistic Director of the company and held this title until 2004. During his tenure he has led nearly 2,500 performances of 85 different operas.

Over time I became aware of Levine’s incredible range. There are many conductors who are comfortable and knowledgeable in a limited range of repertoire. We’ve worked with bel canto specialists, Verdi or Wagner exponents, and modern music mavens. Even the great Carlos Kleiber, who conducted us transcendentally a number of times, had a famously small repertoire, including only a handful of operas. Jim conducts Mozart, Donizetti, Verdi, Wagner, Strauss, Mahler, Stravinsky, Berg, and Gershwin with fluency and an understanding that is both historically informed and always vital. He approaches everything with a strong point of view and insightful awareness of the music, the drama, the text, and the context. Jim has often remarked on the importance of playing something like it is the premiere performance or for the person who might be hearing the work for the first time.

Greg Zuber with James Levine (Photo by Michael Ouzounian)

Greg Zuber with James Levine (Photo by Michael Ouzounian)

Levine initiated acclaimed concert series for the MET Orchestra and the MET Chamber Ensemble at Carnegie Hall. Under his leadership, the company and the MET Orchestra have toured the United States, Europe, and Japan and made numerous CDs, DVDs, and live video broadcasts and recordings which preceded the live HD and satellite radio broadcasts of today.

Levine has a voracious musical curiosity, which is often most evident in our MET Orchestra and chamber music performances. While the challenging economics of opera seem to make more adventurous programming daunting, these other settings allow opportunities to explore the most current music, including that of John Cage, Olivier Messiaen, Elliot Carter, Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, Tan Dun, Iannis Xenakis, Gunther Schuller, and Charles Wuorinen. The music of these composers, nearly all of whom he has known personally and whose work he has championed, has served a vital mission, a connection to the art of our time, a modernist diet like the adventurous menu in a restaurant offering molecular gastronomy, a way to continue challenging himself and our orchestra.

As a leader, Levine is a master psychologist, understanding that, unlike the stereotypical tyrannical maestros, the best performances come from making someone believe they can achieve more than they expect of themselves. He plays the orchestra as his instrument (despite the fact that he was also a world-class pianist who rejected the possibility of pursuing a career as a concert soloist). Jim is famous, or possibly infamous, for a rehearsal style that leans toward verbose. With detailed direction that might describe the weight, color, intensity, articulation, envelope, from one note to the next, from one phrase to the next, rehearsal can be laborious. This establishes the parameters of a work, the stylistic characteristics for an entire piece, and asserts his detailed conception, literally note by note, like any great instrumentalist fastidiously preparing a refined performance. Often, his detailed requests seem as much like he is talking to himself as directing us. While often praising our achievements, it is more common for Jim to offer comments in terms of the ways we can continue improving and raising our level even higher.

Levine is acclaimed for building the orchestra into the high-caliber ensemble that it is today. It is less understood that this has largely been through a combination of trust in our collective stewardship, as well as his guidance and all of our hard work. Over the years Jimmy only rarely attended our auditions, which are anonymous and behind a screen in all rounds. He has trusted the committees, made up of orchestra members, to find the most suitable players. On the rare occasions when he has attended the final round of an audition, it has often been to offer a few words of guidance regarding specific qualities we should look for in the applicants, generally, with him abstaining from exercising the single vote allotted the music director. At a recent audition, Jim affirmed our process, advising us to never change this procedure.

When I began at the Met, Jim would come to work in his idea of a uniform: a blue polo shirt, blue slacks, suede shoes, and a big thick bath towel folded lengthwise and draped over his left shoulder. Every rehearsal he wore this same outfit. A colleague once said that if Levine ever showed up without his towel, he would give me $100. Jim’s personal style in casual settings sometimes includes sporting a designer silk scarf. He has a collection of pocket watches and also fine pens. Jim can wax poetic on non-musical subjects. Upon learning my wife grew up in a downtown hotel in Chicago, they had a long discussion on the various pluses and minuses of hotel life, the quality of pillows, room service, etc. (things important to anyone traveling as much as he).

When we toured, it was common to see Jim entering the airport with as many as 11 trunks and suitcases trailing behind his personal assistant Ken Hunt, one containing scores, another books, bringing along the necessities and accoutrements of the daily life of an artist. He is known to need no more than four hours of sleep a night and reportedly begins his daily practice and score study early each morning. Still amped up after performances, it’s known that, after leaving the evening’s performance, certain restaurants will have a meal prepared and ready to go that he can pick up on the way home.

On the strength of Jimmy’s vital energy, keen intelligence, artistic taste, and voracious need to make music, the MET Orchestra and chorus are acclaimed among the world’s best. Along for the ride, many of us in the orchestra, chorus, and, I hope, our audience, have been afforded unique and life-shaping experiences. I (We) wish to offer our Maestro Jimmy our congratulations on becoming our Music Director Emeritus.