Some music-making of a very high caliber took place at New York’s Carnegie Hall on the evening of May 26, 2016, when James Levine closed out a three-concert series by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra with selections from the Ring Cycle.
The Met Orchestra has, for years, been by far the best band in New York, and, with the possible exception of Vienna, the best opera orchestra in the world. For many seasons now, at the close of the Met schedule, Levine has given audiences the opportunity to hear these accomplished players in nonoperatic repertoire, on stage rather than in a pit. This year was of course different entirely since, having retired as Music Director, Levine will not be conducting next May’s series of concerts nor, one must assume, the Met’s next Ring, scheduled for 2018-19.
The program included orchestra set-pieces (Gods’ Entry Into Valhalla, Ride of the Walküres) and extended excerpts with sung passages (Brünnhilde’s Awakening, Duet and Rhine Journey from Götterdämmerung, Immolation Scene). Christine Goerke, the once Third Norn and soon-to-be Brünnhilde at the Met, was powerful to the point of being overwhelming, and Stefan Vinke was a very good Siegfried.
It was revealing to watch the orchestra in these scores, as one has no opportunity to do at the opera house. Amazing, for example, the effect of a quiet pizzicato offered by eight string basses, or to see the extraordinary melodic hand-offs among the reeds and between the second and first violins.
I was there for personal reasons, though, and I suspect many in the audience shared my condition. James Levine’s 40 years’ career in New York has, in great part, been my own Wagner journey. I first heard a Levine performance of Wagner on 18 September 1978 – Tannhäuser, when I was 28 – and most recently attended the performance of the same work on 8 October 2015, when I was 65. All told I have attended 38 Levine performances of Wagner’s works, of which 4 were Ring Cycles. So 50 times I have sat in the darkness to be thrilled by Wagner through the sharp and capable musical prism of this most remarkable musician. In a very real sense, I owe James Levine my relationship to this music. And that relationship has meant a lot to me.
About 10 years ago I was dining in a restaurant that I had no right to dine in, when Maestro Levine walked in with two others and sat two tables from us. I explained to my companion who James Levine was, and what he had given me. “You must go over and tell him that,” my friend urged. I declined, guided by Kant’s categorical imperative – if everyone who owed him what I owed him interrupted his dinners to tell him so, the man would never eat.
At Carnegie Hall, I watched as Levine guided that extraordinary D-flat crescendo-diminuendo at the end, and saw his left arm hanging uselessly, and watched as his right arm, holding the baton, slowly lowered to his side, deeper and deeper to the floor, his back falling slowly against the back of his wheelchair, the sound dying into a void of silence. I did not join the riot of applause as he gathered himself upright in his wheelchair, spent, and brought his hands to his face in exhaustion and (I wonder) acceptance. I felt no urge even then to thank him for all he had done for me.
I had shared his gift of artistry and felt so, so lucky that I had been able to do so for so, so much of my life.