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Monday, October 14, 2013

Concert Review: Along the Comeback Trail

James Levine conducts the MET Orchestra.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
James Levine conducting the MET Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
New Yorkers love a comeback. At least those New Yorkers who follow the Metropolitan Opera, a company that has reinvigorated itself with the return to duties of music director James Levine. That was evident on Sunday afternoon as James Levine led the MET Orchestra in his first subscription concert of the season at Carnegie Hall. Rolling onstage in his custom-built wheelchair and getting locked into the elevated conductor's kiosk, Mr. Levine received a thunderous reception from the sold-out Stern Auditorium.

The program was bold and varied, yet somehow interconnected. It opened with the overture to Verdi's I Vespri Siciliani, a mammoth five-act grand opera that ranks among the composer's lesser-known works. (Vespri is also something of a Levine specialty--one of the first opera recordings he made way back in 1973.) Here, the playing was taut and atmospheric, with the muffled, menacing staccato hinting at the massacre that ends the opera giving way to an expansive melody that moved along at a brisk pace.


Mr. Levine followed this example of 19th century opera with a modern work: the 1955 Orchestra Variations by New York's own Elliott Carter. This is an abstract work, built on a large orchestral canvas. He starts with the interleaving of three thematic ideas and a set of increasingly complex variations on those thematic fragments. The superb instrument that is the MET Orchestra responded enthusiastically, weaving a complicated pattern of notes and creating an intricate, brightly threaded  tapestry of sounds. Chittering winds and the occasional rumination from the low brass answered the strings, and the whole culminated in a thunderous final statement from the trombones and percussion.

The next selection was the MET Orchestra's first Carnegie Hall performance of a Rossini rarity: the composer's cantata setting (in an orchestration by Salvatore Sciarrino) of Giovanni d'Arco, the story of Joan of Arc. Giovanna d'Arco dates from Rossini's retirement period, and is a fascinating glimpse of the composer's (mostly unrealized) mature style, a scena from an opera that doesn't actually exist.

This performance featured mezzo Joyce DiDonato, who seemed to relish the portrayal of Joan's emotional turmoil, singing the heroine's part with a rich upper register, descending down to her dusky, almost contralto range to portray despair and the doom that Joan will ultimately face. More importantly, she carried the dramatic arc of Joan through the contrasting sections of this long piece, with her vocal line ably supported. Mr. Levine's conducting stressed the martial nature of Joan's achievements, with the aria forming an informal bookend with the earlier Verdi work. One could clearly hear Rossini's influence on Verdi after this performance.

Ms. DiDonato opened the second half of the concert with two arias from La Clemenza di Tito. She also displayed her versatility as an actress, as the arias were written for characters of different gender. The first, "Deh per questo istante solo" is the famous prison aria sung by Sesto, following his incarceration after attempting to kill the Roman emperor Titus. The second, "Non più di fiori" is performed by Vitellia, the leader of the conspiracy. Both are showstoppers. Ms. Di Donato sang each aria with a complex, psychologically penetrative delivery and a crackling assortment of vocal fioratura.

It is perhaps fitting that Mr. Levine chose Beethoven's Seventh Symphony for this concert. The Seventh is one of Beethoven's most dramatic works, an account of the composer's struggles and triumphs against adversity. Here, the slow, dramatic introduction led to a dance played with steady, bright joy, with the conductor indulging in the clarity of ensemble winds and the strong under-support of the MET Orchestra string section. This was an emotionally intense performance, with tight, clean playing from the ensemble and a relentless forward drive. Mr. Levine moved smoothly to the famous Adagietto, bringing out the fire-power of the brass to underline the heavy, obsessive rhythms. One had the feeling that this performance was the chronicle of Mr. Levine's well-documented illnesses and injuries in recent years, a blunt statement of purpose in the face of adversity.

The last two movements are less dramatic, but still filled with meaning and portent. Mr. Levine took real joy in triggering the manic dance movement. The insistent, chugging rhythm of the dance movement sounded powerful, and almost pristine, with each small note sparkling and clear. The conductor took a short pause before racing into the pell-mell finale, maintaining precise control of the ensemble while letting the multitude of players shout out their triumph. As the audience rose in appreciation, Mr. Levine beamed beatifically. It was indeed, good to be back.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.