Levine Celebration: Maestro

by Rafael Figueroa, principal cellist

The year was 1995. In the early summer, I auditioned for the Principal Cello position at the MET Orchestra and got the job. The summer that followed flew by, preparing as I was an enormous pile of scores to be performed in the next season. Soon, it was the day after Labor Day and I was presented to the band in my first rehearsal - Pique Dame with Valery Gergiev. A few days later, I met Jimmy for the first time. We were rehearsing Otello for opening night. In a matter of seconds, I realized this man was something special. His mental capacity, his ability to make everyone play at their maximum, were just genius.

My first season started with that opening night Otello, with Jimmy conducting a superb cast led by Plácido Domingo, Renée Fleming, and James Morris. There was electricity in the air. A few pages in, everything stopped and I played my very first solo at the opera. As I looked up, I saw a big smile on Jimmy’s face. This was the beginning of a very special relationship - one that has lasted twenty-one years. 

I like to think of that season as having bookends: opening night and, on the last day, the Levine Gala. The Gala was a marathon that began at 6:00 PM and ended at 2:00 AM. There was no way to prepare for it because it was evolving by the minute. I went to the music library in search of parts, only to learn that the singers were changing their requests every minute. In short, the Gala was divided into three act-like segments. Each segment consisted of a huge folder of arias from every opera you can think of (and then some). Needless to say, I had never played any of that music.

About an hour before the Gala began I went into the pit. It was empty. I was going through the music, trying to fish out any cello solos, when I felt a hand on my shoulder and heard the words, “Hi, baby.” It was Jimmy. With a big smile, he said to me, “Rafi, I know this is all new to you, but just stay with me tonight and I’ll help you through.” Throughout the entire eight hours of this marathon, Jimmy was not only in total command of the big picture - he was in contact with me every time there was a nuance that couldn’t be notated. At the end, at a huge company party, I ran into Jimmy. I will never forget his words. He said, “Rafi, you have had a first season like nobody else’s.”

Other highlights under Jimmy have been numerous and thrilling. Performing a pair of Brahms songs with Jimmy and Jessye Norman (which I learned of only after finding about two dozen voice messages upon returning from a vacation!); playing the Brahms Double Concerto with my friend, concertmaster David Chan - these are things one can only dream of.

When I sat down to write these lines, I started with the title, Maestro. I did so because this is a term that is very often misused. Maestro means master, teacher. Not everyone who stands on a podium with a baton in hand is a maestro. The title must be earned. It is ironic that someone of the stature of James Levine, one of the greatest of all time, does not like to be called “maestro.” He made it clear right away that he wanted to be called Jimmy. So Jimmy it is, from whom I have learned more about music than from any and all of the rest put together. Jimmy, the great maestro who built this house.