Friday, September 02, 2005

Tanglewood was a better place this year because of James Levine, and he plans an even stronger presence next year in his second season.

From his opening-night Mahler Eighth to his cameo appearance in Tanglewood on Parade, from his Wagner evening with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra to his challenging American program with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, from his role as a chamber music pianist at Opening Exercises to his extensive master classes, the BSO's new music director threw himself into his work with an energy and commitment that surprised even BSO insiders. Tanglewood was remade.

  • And Levine was a happy man, according to those — managers, players and faculty members — who worked with him.

    After teaching TMC students how to play Wagner during nearly 30 hours of rehearsal for the two "Ring" Cycle acts, Levine said the project had forced him to rethink and relearn music he knew like his name, BSO managing director Mark Volpe recalled in an interview.

    Levine actually had to think about details he had never needed to think about during his many years of conducting Wagner at the Bayreuth festival in Germany and at the Met, Volpe said. He quoted Levine: "I had to reteach myself some things to teach it to the kids.



    The performance, with Deborah Voigt as the star, would have done many an opera house proud. Yet these were technically proficient students who, for the most part, didn't even know the story of the "Ring" Cycle when they arrived. To assist in understanding, Levine had a synopsis handed out, arranged for a lecture and had DVDs of his performances played in the student lounge.

    During his four-week residency, Levine also met with student singers in master classes and took student conductors, singers and instrumentalists through Act I of Mozart's "Don Giovanni." In the closed sessions, he went through the opera less for vocal preparation than for psychological comprehension.

    Seiji Ozawa, Levine's predecessor, was admired as a conducting teacher and orchestra builder, but never had a storm like this blown through Tanglewood during his 29-year tenure. Nor was the BSO's playing as refined, transparent and responsive as it became even in the Berkshires' inhospitable hu-midity.

  • Next year will be even bigger for Levine, assuming his sometimes-questioned health holds up. He'll step up his residency to five weeks, conduct two operas — one each with the BSO and TMC Orchestra — and conduct at least one work in the Festival of Contemporary Music.

    He'll open the BSO season with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, a carryover from a two-year Boston project pairing Beethoven and Schoenberg as revolutionary Vien-nese composers a century apart.

    On the second weekend here, Levine will conduct Schoenberg's "Gurrelieder," a late-romantic epic on the scale of the Mahler Eighth. It's also part of the Boston project.

    The third weekend will be all-Mozart in celebration of the 250th anniversary of the composer's birth. In the three programs, Levine will lead the BSO in an orchestral concert, a concert version of "Don Giovanni," and the Requiem. It will be the BSO's first performance of "Don Giovanni."

    Also early in the season, this musical dynamo will lead the TMC Orchestra in Strauss' one-act opera "Elektra." As in the Wagner program this year, the concert performance will feature a professional cast with the student orchestra.

    It's a "killer" schedule for Levine, said Volpe. But "he had a fantastic experience with the Wagner with the students, and I think it was pedagogically quite compelling from the student perspective."

    Meanwhile, Volpe said, Levine is still "sorting out" what to do with the student conducting program, which had been marking time until his arrival, and a possible restructuring of the contemporary festival, which jams all of its many concerts into five days.

    Predictably, there were two seasons this year — Levine's and the rest of the summer, which was pretty much typical, with highs, lows and much in between.

    Though poorly attended, Levine's American program, combining two recently premiered works with two landmark works from early in the 20th century, was a shining example of programming that keeps both music and musicians fresh. More traditionally, the first of his two Brahms programs, pairing the Third and First symphonies, was also a high-water mark.

    Rafael Fruehbeck de Burgos, who has become the BSO's de facto principal guest conductor, also offered rewarding Brahms with three of the lesser-known choral works. Fruehbeck was also responsible for one of the season's most imaginative events, a staging of Falla's charming opera "Master Peter's Puppet Show," complete with puppets.

    Credit Fruehbeck, too, with a resplendent Beethoven-Strauss program as the TMC Orchestra's season farewell.

    Other memorable events from the summer included the sensational debut of 24-year-old violinist Lisa Batiashvili, from the republic of Georgia, in the Sibelius concerto, and the TMC Orchestra's performance, under Stefan Asbury, of Steven Stucky's masterful Second Concerto for Orchestra. The TMC beat most major orchestras to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Stucky work, premiered only last year by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

    In the recital and chamber series, the Beaux Arts Trio (in its 50th-anniversary concert), the Emerson String Quartet, baritone Matthias Goerne and pianist Leon Fleisher added special luster to the season. The common thread among their disparate offerings was a profound immersion in music that speaks to the human condition.

    There were also several low points, but only one — because of its wider significance — is worth recalling.

    Conductor Marin Alsop's BSO debut was troubling not only because it was ineffectually led and marked by inconsistent playing. The showing also brought into question her ability to guide the fortunes of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as its director-designate, an appointment greeted by a highly public display of musicians' dissatisfaction.

    Overall, Tanglewood enjoyed a fine season despite the damp weather and its inevitable effect on attendance. Amid desperation tactics by other orchestras to attract audiences, the Boston Symphony is fortunate to have a conductor of Levine's stature to take it to new heights.

    It's very much to the BSO's credit that it sought Levine out and gave him the support to do his kind of music — serious music — in the serious manner he thinks it should be done. The challenge ahead, as attendance patterns this summer again showed, is to convince a wider public that there is more to music than stars, pop and glitz.