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Saturday, May 21, 2016

Concert Review: And So His Watch is Winding Down

James Levine, Evgeny Kissin and the MET Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
James Levine in 2013, ensconced in his special motorized wheelchair on the stage of
Carnegie Hall. The Met's music director will step down this year after 40 years of service.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
The concerts played at Carnegie Hall by the Metropolitan Opera's pit orchestra (billed for these occasions by the marketing department of that august institution as "The MET Orchestra") are the brainchild of music director James Levine. Lately though, they've seemed more like a burden, more weight added to the workload of a conductor whose career is drawing to its twilight. Mr. Levine is still a vital musical force, but he is retiring because of physical issues that have threatened and impaired his performances. (This was his first concert in the newly created post of Music Director Emeritus.)

On Thursday evening, Mr. Levine, who formally ended his four-decade tenure as the Met's music director this month, and his forces offered a thoroughly traditional program of Russian music at Carnegie Hall, the first of three orchestral concerts this month. The program was a straight-up overture-concerto-symphony format, with audience-pleasing works by Glinka, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky to please the packed house. And when Mr. Levine took the stage in his special, motorized wheelchair, he was met by a loud wave of applause from the faithful.

He rewarded that applause with a glittering performance of the Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila. This is Glinka's second and final opera, a work that the Kirov (now Mariinsky) Opera presented on the Met stage in 1998, but the Met itself has never touched. Glinka stands at the start of the history of Russian art music, and his orchestral writing combines the energy of Rossini with a thicker orchestral texture that is characteristically Russian. Mr. Levine led this work with bold colors and bright energy, in a performance that was a good argument for this orchestra to one day consider playing the entire work.

Mr. Kissin's arrival onstage drew further appreciation. The Russian pianist has always been a popular figure in New York, and his account of the solo part in the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto showed why. Here were the bold, flowing rhythms and the almost-improvisatory-sounding cadenzas that are the product of a composer who was also a great virtuoso. Unfortunately, the first movement was marred by an over-loud orchestra that drowned out the piano part on occasion and a laggardly tempo that found Mr. Levine struggling to keep up with his soloist.

The second movement was better as conductor and pianist got on the same page to produce a slow surge of sound that eventually burst into fireworks. The display continued in the final fast march, with Mr. Kissin making the edge-of-the-seat piano heroics look and sound deceptively easy. Following the performance, he obliged with two encores, an Etude-Tableau from Rachmaninoff's pen and the charming Natha Waltz by Tchaikovsky--works that showed his virtuosity and versatility in their very different emotional sound-worlds.

The MET Orchestra concerts used to be spread out over the course of the season, but are now packed in after the opera goes dark. Next Sunday's all-Strauss concert will be led by David Robertson, and next Thursday Mr. Levine returns for one last blaze of Wagnerian glory. (Next year, Mr. Levine will be replaced by Esa-Pekka Salonen on the Carnegie podium, but that's been covered elsewhere.) So it was fitting that he chose Tchaikovsky's  Symphony No. 6 in B minor. Nicknamed the Pathétique, this has been called the composer's "suicide note." It is a work rivalled only by Mahler's Ninth as a career-ending symphonic valediction.

The tempo changes  of the first movement did not daunt Mr. Levine or his players, who produced a performance that centered around the great, sweeping cantabile melody that rolls through the orchestra like a wave of salty tears. This majestic opening led to the wry waltz, where the composer sounds like the only man left standing on the dance floor as others capered and whirled. The bright, brassy march had the woodwinds, trumpets and horns doing the heavy lifting, a movement so impressive that some people left, satisfied at its close. Their loss. It was the fourth and final movement where Mr. Levine and his players drove their point home, a long downward spiral that ended in just cellos, bassoons, basses and finally, silence. 

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