Levine Celebration: Work and Work and Work

Ira Lieberman, violinist (ret.)

One January morning in 2008 found us rehearsing for a May Carnegie Hall concert, playing through the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony. Maestro Levine usually likes to first read through a piece before going back and rehearsing it. But, with a young oboist just a tad nervous before playing his solo at the beginning of the slow movement, Levine took a moment to suggest that the oboist begin it himself [without a downbeat cue]. When necessary, Levine would simply bring in the orchestra to accompany him. After hearing it played very beautifully Levine stopped, complimented the oboist, and asked if he would mind playing it again, this time with just a bit more flow but with his own “imagination and vision.” It was a perfectly touching moment.

*   *   *

During a pit rehearsal of Il tabarro, Levine made explicit his penchant for gestural restraint in his conducting. There is a passage of string tremolo, during which the timpanist plays two solo notes, an upbeat and a downbeat, fortissimo. The obvious gesture for provoking such powerful “thuds” would be large and dramatic. Levine, however, asked the timpanist to play them without a cue so that “there’s no sight relation between the sound and my gesture.”

Levine made the same point during a rehearsal of Das Rheingold. Speaking of a passage with a large crescendo, he said, “I know it’s more fun for you if I increase the size of the beat, but the audience would notice it, too, and I hate that.”