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MET Orchestra Meets Dvořák, Exquisitely Falls in Love

by Jim Rosenfield

James Levine, MET Orchestra, Carnegie Hall

Photo credit: Tina Fineberg, The New York Times

Carnegie Hall has been a hotbed of musical excitement over the past few weeks, first with David Lang's collected stories concerts at Zankel, followed by the, sadly final, Spring for Music festival. Compared to this type of adventurous programming, an all-Dvořák concert on Sunday seemed pretty vanilla by comparison. Vanilla turned technicolor, however, upon the first note of the Carnival Overture, due to both the melodic genius of the composer and the greatness of the MET Orchestra, strongly led by a vigorous James Levine.

Is there a composer anywhere—aside from Mozart and Schubert—whose gift for melody equals Dvořák? The biggest, and possibly least familiar, piece on the program was the Seventh Symphony, with its great tunes melded into a firm symphonic skeletal structure. Levine and his players extracted all they could get out of the wonderful symphony; motives were clearly delineated throughout, and the classical rigor of the performance paid wonderful homage to Brahms, the Czech composer's friend and mentor (both the Dvořák symphony and Brahms's Fourth Symphony received their premiere performances in 1885).

Levine had taken the first movement at a somewhat relaxed pace, which worked perfectly well, but this leisurely approach did not continue in the other movements. Great conductor; great choice. The third movement, with its waltz-like beginning, was especially beguiling, and the final movement marched on to a thrilling climax.

The Carnival Overture, the concert's opening piece, took off like a cannonball and never relented. One immediately appreciated the wonders of the MET Orchestra, and gloried in seeing them out of the pit. Solo instrumental passages throughout the concert were virtual lessons in in perfection, aided by the outstanding Carnegie Hall acoustics.

Dvorak's Cello Concerto followed, played passionately by soloist Lynn Harrell, on what was evidently a new instrument. Harrell's committed performance exemplified the amazing expressive power of the cello, from tender to gruff. The concerto itself—one of the most popular Dvořák works, and arguably the most frequently played of all cello concerti—sounded fresh and new in the hands of these highly adept performers.

After a thunderous standing ovation, Harrell returned for an encore. He mentioned that he and Levine first met 58 years ago, when young Levine accompanied his father, the baritone Mack Harrell, at the piano. Harrell then dedicated Bach's "Prelude" from the First Cello Suite to Levine, the orchestra, and his father. I would almost say there wasn't a dry eye in the house, but everyone was overjoyed.

James Levine looked terrific, with upper-body mobility seemingly restored. His gestures, a few years ago constricted, were broad and sweeping. Long may he conduct, and long lead what is clearly one of the great orchestras of the world.