Thursday, October 13, 2011

An Essay on the Magic of Conducting an Orchestra Revisited

   When I submitted my rough draft of my previously mentioned essay, I was confident in its merits as an astute contribution to the world of literature. Moreover, I was certain that it would be well received by my professor, but, when I received it with his critique of my profile of the subject, it carried the simple, but potent instruction of 'Simplify' emblazoned across the top of my title page.

   Reading this piece of advice from my professor, I decided it would be prudent to inquire of him what course of action I might pursue to better my essay in his opinion, and he promptly rewarded my curiosity with the following statement. I paraphrase, of course, but the expressed sentiments are the same.

   "You are at least two years ahead of this class," he assured me, "But, you need to bring your ability down to the level of the rest of the class so that we do not get ahead, or I will have to adjust your grade."
  I translated that to mean that I would have to rewrite my essay in sixth-grade language, or my alternative was that my grade on the piece would suffer. When I completed it, I did not feel that it was quite as eloquent or insightful as my previous telling of the events and facts, but we shall have to see what my actual grade shall depict. Nevertheless, for the consideration of my readers, I present my revised essay, and all of you are at liberty to submit your opinions on which you enjoy better and which is better suited to the subject I have elected to illustrate.

The Wave of the Wand
As you sit confined to your seat, your gaze is transfixed upon the woman before you. She is an object of captivating beauty, and she is clothed in a red gown of costly fabric and elegant design. If the scene before you were not so tense, you could notice all of these things, but the only visible thing to your mind is the dagger that this woman holds. Her weapon is a delicate one. It has a slender blade of steel coupled with a hilt of gold, which is crowned with small rubies, emeralds, and sapphires. She carries it with an exact intent. There can be no denying her motive as she stares unflinchingly at the large man who is merely a yard away from her. As she lunges for him, any defense that this muscular man may make in the face of this attack is powerless. Our heroine buries the double-edged blade into the villain’s throat, and blood oozes from the wound. He sinks to his knees as the life escapes his veins, and the woman slowly withdraws the weapon from his neck. A moment of silence ensues, and, for a brief space of time, one is left to ponder the grotesque image.
The woman glares at the man even still, and we begin to glimpse a transformation of her character. She is no longer desperately hopeful for another end to this episode; indeed, her demeanor has been replaced with a commanding persona that people often assume when they
gain mastery of a situation. The silence lingers just long enough for the spectator to ponder all of these things, and then it is suddenly broken by a collection of instruments, an orchestra. Ordering this interruption to our contemplation of the affair, there is a man dressed in formal attire standing in a dimly lit space that is just below our vision. In reality there is a massive, capacious stage before an audience, and the scene that I have described is from Giacomo Puccini’s opera Tosca. With a deliberate motion, this imposing figure compels the members of the orchestra to play the music that underscores the mood, and we are reminded that we are watching a performance. This man’s name is James Levine, and he is the conductor for the evening, the one responsible for controlling the sounds of the orchestra. Under his precise direction of them, the orchestra players must combine to form a cohesive unit, and every tone must be synchronized. He adeptly ensures that such is the case.
Levine holds a baton in his hand. Based upon the movement of this small, carved piece of wood, he can create luscious melodies to inspire any sort of emotion known to human beings. In a sense, then, it is almost believable that he possesses a magic wand. If he wills it, music is created, and he can mute any sound with the slightest gesture of the wispy rod. I ask the reader: is this not a power that is most surreal? I would adore such ability!
James Levine is the Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera House of New York. According to Martin Mayer, author of The Met: One Hundred Years of Grand Opera, Levine was engaged as principal conductor for the 1972-1973 season in 1971 by the General Manager elect of the Metropolitan Opera for the 1972 season, Gorean Gentele, after a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Luisa Miller. He had been a mere spectator at Lincoln Center that Saturday afternoon, and he was amazed at the brilliance of the young conductor in the orchestra pit, for
Levine was a mere twenty-eight at the time. Gentele thought it would be a sound move to hire an American as the principal conductor for America’s leading opera company (Mayer). As we learn from Paul Jackson, PhD., in his volume Start-Up at the New Met: The Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts 1966-1976, Levine’s substitution for the deceased Fausto Cleva was nothing short of superb.
“Levine’s shepherding of the early Verdi work is both masterly and masterful,” Jackson praises in regards to the performance given on October 15, 1971 (Jackson).
To illustrate the magic that he possesses, Jackson continues, “And what an invigorating ride it is. The first measures of the overture put us on alert. The reading is notable both for its structural coherence and pointing of detail. Verdi’s little chords, nestled under the opening theme, are rhythmically alive and propel the thematic line onward; integration between melody and accompaniment is complete. When the clarinet takes over the theme, Levine allows it to sing – the change is slight, but the intent is clear.” (Jackson)
From this vivid description of Levine’s marshaling of his orchestral forces, we can see that his ability to work magic from the pages of orchestral scores is a trait that he has never lacked from his beginning as a conductor. Because he worked as an assistant to maestro George Szell, he learned his trade well, and his attention to detail is evident. Jackson writes of this, as well.
“The Met had long lacked a conductor of the Italian repertory who combined an impeccable ear for detail with the ability to shape formal structures, small and large, for maximum musical and dramaturgical effect. Mr. [Rudolph] Bing had found one in Levine,” Jackson assures us. (Jackson)
What ensued after Gentele’s appointment of Levine was a thirty-nine year career as the ultimate musical figure at the Metropolitan Opera. He began as the principal conductor. Previously, it was the custom of general managers to hire conductors who had worked with them before since they knew that those conductors would deliver excellent results. Giulio Gatti-Casazza, another general manager of the Metropolitan Opera during the 1930’s, is a prime example of this when he imported the famous Arturo Toscanini to New York as he was scheduled to take over the company. Throughout his ongoing career, Levine has seen the succession of five General Managers, and his contract is set to last through the 2011-2012 season. Over the years he has risen in the ranks of the company. While he certainly began with a prestigious position, be became the de facto Music director of the Met in 1974 after the unexpected departure of Rafael Kubelik early in the year, but he gained that title officially in 1976. Ten years later, in 1986, he became the Artistic Director of the organization, which was a title he was the first to acquire in the company’s history. (Mayer)
In the spring of 2004, his health became a concern for the management of the house because of tremors in his left arm that sometimes impaired his abilities on the podium; nevertheless, the Met extended his contract, but these past few years have been marked with uncertainty for the future of the Met’s Music Director.
Recently, in a story for The New York Times, Daniel J. Wakin reported, “Mr. Levine, who has suffered a series of physical ailments, needed emergency surgery after falling while on vacation in Vermont and will be out until at least January, the Met said.” (Wakin) This posed a question in my mind.
“What happens when a conductor finds it necessary to take an absence? Does a performance get cancelled, or do they find a replacement for him,” I wondered.
In Mr. Levine’s case a replacement has been found, and this new conductor is Fabio Luisi, who had already been the principal guest conductor at the Metropolitan Opera this season. However, there have also been several cancellations that Luisi has had to make in the light of this promotion. Several performances in Europe have either been cancelled, or they have found alternative conductors to fulfill the maestro’s former engagements. Many of these were scheduled with his orchestra, the Vienna Symphony, where he holds the title of chief conductor. Luisi’s absence strikes a chord of dissonance between him, the Met, and Mr. Thomas Angyan. Angyan is the artistic and executive director of the Musikverein, which is often the orchestra’s home for performances. Regarding Luisi’s appointment at the Met, Angyan says that the cancellation was not done quite professionally. He maintains that Luisi did not even contact him about his required cancellations directly. (Wakin)
“I’m astonished that he forgot my e-mail address or telephone number,” Mr. Angyan said. Though he asserts that he has immense respect for Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s current General Manager, he was rather displeased at Gelb’s alleged treatment of him during a telephone conversation with him discussing the situation.
“Saying ‘I have to have your approval in ten seconds’ is not the nicest way,” he said. I would agree with Mr. Angyan, but the magic that a specific conductor’s wand can weave is priceless, and I can hardly blame one of the world’s foremost opera companies for wanting it. I believe that it should be an exquisite season for the Metropolitan Opera House of New York this year, and I am excited to hear how Fabio Luisi compares to James Levine while Luisi
substitutes for him. Let us hope that we may describe his ability in such superlative terms as we depict Levine’s.
Works Cited:
Jackson, Paul. "Start-Up at the New Met: The Metropoilitan Opera Broadcasts, 1966-1976." Newark: Amadeus Press, 2006. 262.
Mayer, Martin. "The Met: One Hundred Years of Grand Opera." New York: Simon and Schuster; The Metropolitan Opera Guild, 1983. 324.
Wakin, Daniel J. "Maestro's Injury Ignites Game of Musical Chairs." The New York Times 22 September 2011: 1;5.

   I am most ingratiated to all of my readers, and I hope that God continues to bless you in your lives. As a reminder to anyone who is interested, the commencement of the Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD season comes this Saturday, October 15, 2011, with Gaetano Donizetti's Anna Bolena, and it stars Anna Netrebko, Ekaterina Gubanova, Stephen Costello, Tamara Mumford, and Ildar Abdrazakov. I may attend my local cinema's showing of it, but I am not yet sure. Thank you for perusing my humble musings.

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