Sunday, January 01, 2006

James Levine on NPR

I criticized an NPR article last week; so in the interest of fair and balanced blogging, I have to applaud another NPR piece, an extended profile of conductor James Levine. Scott Simon interviewed Levine, and their conversation ranged over several of Levine's favorite topics - the power of minimal gestures in conducting, new music and new ideas in programming, the need to devote one's whole life and energy to music, etc.

Here's some of the piece that I transcribed:

Scott Simon: James Levine says that he's always looking for new compositions.

James Levine: I find them every way. I find them by sitting, having a meeting or a lunch or a drink or something with any one of a number of colleagues, composers, conductors, instrumentalists and I say to them, “What have you played lately that was new that you liked or that was interesting?” and I'm always working on new scores just as a matter of course, just to reduce the number of things that I have no knowledge of.

Scott Simon: I've been told that, what was it, your parents put a record player near your crib?

James Levine: Yeah, sometimes when they needed peace and quiet in the house after I was born they put a small record player, that I could handle, with a stack of records next to it. It was one of many things that they tell me – that I sang melody coherently before I could really talk coherently. I had a speech impediment and my mother was speaking to the pediatrician and the pediatrician said, “Well what's he interested in?” and my mother said, “Well he drives us crazy banging on the piano all the time, reaching up when he's nearby,” and the doctor said, “Well, try piano lessons.” Perceptive doctor!

Scott Simon: Without putting you on the spot, I've been told you don't have a lot of hobbies - that music is your life.

James Levine: Oh, the way I think of it, I guess, is that everything I do goes into, ultimately, the big main river of my life, which is music. I guess there's also learning new music, I mean I've always gone on vacation with a handful of scores that are not what I have to do right then, because for me vacation from music means not having to rehearse or perform. But I wouldn't know what to do with myself all day, day after day, if there weren't some part of the day where I can explore the scores that I have with me.

It is hard to imagine James Levine not crouched above a musical score, a large towel slung over one shoulder, and a large mug of some warm beverage at his side. I worked with him at the Verbier Festival for two summers, and also got to rehearse and perform Schubert's 'Trout' Quintet with him as pianist.

Preparing chamber music with Levine was a dizzying experience - he would offer not so much suggestions, but musicological footnotes about the piece, the vocal traditions Schubert was steeped in, the large and small-scale structure of the musical discourse. Then we would all try a section again, a bit more enlightened and also more than a little awed to be playing with someone so wise!

His orchestral rehearsals were similar - a great deal of thoughtful, profound commentary, very little gesture. But when he wants to, his gestures can add an explosive fire to a performance, and raise it to another level. I remember a particularly exciting performance of Schubert's 9th Symphony there; also we did Mahler's 3rd. James Sommerville speaks in the radio story about how a strategically placed widening of the eyes, or a raise of an eyebrow, can bring an element of magic to the finale of Brahms' 1st. When a musician has such an eloquent and focused technique as Levine, magical things just seem to happen naturally.


Joe said...

Boy would I like to sit down for lunch with Levine and give him a few suggestions on repertoire... ;-)

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