The New York Times reports that the Metropolitan Opera is trying to persuade its music director, James Levine, who has been beset by health problems, to retire. My knowledge of music is fairly shallow, but for what it’s worth, I’ll never forget how Levine conducted the Met orchestra in Wozzeck, Alban Berg’s atonal classic. I read an interview with one of the performers in that production who said (I’m paraphrasing): The good part about this kind of music is that if you sing the wrong note, nobody will know. The bad part is that you have to sell everything to the audience, because the music doesn’t have any of the normal features that they’re accustomed to.
And man, did Levine ever sell it. The score is full of trills and interjections and sudden starts and stops and just plain strange sounds, and while there’s a well-developed plan behind it all, I suspect it is lost on the great majority of the audience (including me). Judged by the standards of conventional opera, it can sound (as people always say about modern pieces) like the orchestra warming up. But if you just sit back and let it wash over you, it can be exhilarating, and Levine brought out every note and made them all fit together.
I’ve heard this production twice, the second time with a friend who has written a great deal of music criticism. As we were walking out, he said, “I would call that voluptuous.” I thought for a moment and said, “You know, I always thought ‘voluptuous’ was a word that critics used when they couldn’t think of anything else to say, but now I understand what it means.” I can’t comment on Levine’s health or his physical ability to do his job, but for this difficult opera, at least, there’s no one I’d rather hear conduct it than him.