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.

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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.”

Scott Brubaker, hornist

When I won my position with the MET Orchestra, in 1973, James Levine was already the Principal Conductor, having just made his debut in 1971. He was young, energetic, enthusiastic, and led performances which were consistently excellent. The orchestra responded most positively to his detailed rehearsals, and his insistence on perfect ensemble, crisp articulation, beautiful colorations, character, and transparent balances. Equally significant was his collegial attitude and his respectful way of dealing with the orchestra.

His modus operandi was to use praise, rather than withering criticism, to build our confidence and self-image, all the while insisting on the qualities which he was so eager to instill and achieve. The way I like to describe our transformation from a pretty good orchestra to a world-class ensemble is this: Jimmy worked and worked and worked with us, all the while telling us how great we were. Then, somehow, over a period of fifteen years, with all the encouragement and drilling, as well as better contracts, which attracted higher-quality members, we actually became the great orchestra that Jimmy kept telling us we were!

He then made Grammy-winning studio recordings with us, took us on prestigious world tours, instituted our Carnegie Hall series, and formed the MET Chamber Ensemble. Jimmy had us delving into adventurous repertoire right alongside the regular operatic and symphonic canon. All of this served to expand our collective musical horizons and to consolidate our newfound status among the world’s orchestras. For all of us, it has been a truly thrilling ride.