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Levine Leads MET Orchestra in Harrowing All-Mahler Program

by Michael Cirigliano II

James Levine, MET Orchestra

Over the past several years, it has become a complete game of chance as to whether James Levine, the beloved conductor at the Metropolitan Opera for over four decades, would actually ascend the podium for any performance featuring his name on the masthead. Countless performances of the Met's recent Ring Cycle, Wozzeck, and MET Orchestra appearances at Carnegie Hall have come and gone, with a handful of vibrant (read: younger and able-bodied) conductors taking the reins at the last minute.

However, Levine is blazing the comeback trail, thanks to a mechanized wheelchair and customized podium that lets him rise above the orchestra he's leading. Whether or not the conductor has the long-term stamina to continue in this capacity remains to be seen, but based on the performance he delivered with the MET Orchestra on Sunday afternoon, the guy still has some kick left in him.

The program featured two of Mahler's bleakest works, the Songs of a Wayfarer and the Seventh Symphony. Despite coming from very different periods in Mahler's career, the two compositions share a common thread, exploring man's relationship to nature—an entity that provides both solace and sheer terror.

Peter Mattei, James Levine, MET Orchestra

Baritone Peter Mattei was brilliant in the song cycle, towering over those sharing the stage with him, and showcasing a strong voice with an expansive range. Even in the weepiest passages of the first and last movements—as the cycle's protagonist comes to terms with loneliness and unrequited love—Mattei never veered into histrionics, allowing the shape of Mahler's phrases to speak for themselves. At times, Mattei even placed a hand on the rim of the conductor's podium, providing the intimacy of a lieder recital, even while backed by a 60-piece orchestra.

The Seventh Symphony is not for the faint of heart—a towering five-movement, 75-minute evocation of a dark journey through nature. Filled with some of the composer's most colorful orchestrations—including a full-blown aria for tenor horn in the first movement, as well as roles for both mandolin and guitar in the fourth movement—the work is not as frequently performed as its symphonic brethren, due to a lack of that big, lush German Romantic sound found in, say, the Ninth. Instead, Mahler centers the work on two nachtmusik movements that frame a ghostly scherzo, all flanked by two explosive marches.

It's easy to get lost in the details, but Levine was masterful in bringing out every granular detail in the score from his ensemble. The woodwinds were evocative in their pre–Messiaen bird calls, horns were lush in their playful delivery of the second movement's shadowy tango, and the string sections were top-notch even in the most knotted passages.

For an ensemble that delivers their best work underground, in a dark pit, it's always amazing to see this orchestra find yet another superlative level to their playing while under Carnegie's bright lights. In the symphony's final moments, as chimes, gongs, and horns filled the hall, it was crystal clear that no orchestra in the country has to adapt to so many different surroundings, and no orchestra exceeds all expectations quite like the MET players.