French American Connections
Carl Maria von Weber : Overture to Euryanthe
Johannes Brahms : Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77
Edgard Varèse : Amériques
George Gershwin : An American in Paris
Gil Shaham (violin)
The MET Orchestra
James Levine (conductor)
The MET Orchestra performances at Carnegie Hall, traditionally gathered in a highly sought-after Sunday afternoon subscription series, tend to be among the hottest tickets in town, season after season. This year is no exception, if anything the buzz around this first-class ensemble and its music director might only be crazier, James Levine being more and more consumed by his newly assumed Boston duties. Back after a three-month absence, and having conducted two deeply affecting performances of Verdi’s Otello at the Opera House the week before, Maestro appeared to be in much better shape than usual, he and his distinguished colleagues offering moments of music-making that surely rank among the most exciting orchestral playing this reviewer has heard in the last few months.
First of all it must be said that the level of communication and artistic understanding between Levine and his musicians is a wonder in itself. Rarely are we treated as listeners to such warm technical polish and intellectual blend, and if there must be one flaw, it is definitely the orchestra’s own perfection. The conductor’s health problems have been widely discussed and speculated about lately, and it is true that today some concerns may arise : besides throning on his now famous velvet-carpeted chair at every performance (although some truly exciting bits saw him standing last Sunday), Levine’s gestures are now extremely limited, his immediate physical impact on the audience (and eventually musicians), probably more imaginary than anything else. But the miracle still regenerates itself in the most mesmerizing way. Having provided a solid but yet subtle and affectionate support to Gil Shaham’s crystalline and at times uncannily incarnate approach of the Brahms concerto, and having delivered a boldly charismatic reading of a somehow neglected Weber overture, Maestro led his band through a strikingly thoughtful journey in contrast (and smart programming) after intermission.
Edgard Varèse’s Amériques remains a very difficult work, and it can even be deeply daunting for today’s audiences. This crowd, however, would cheer at Jimmy’s take on a score he obviously loves, and to which he brought a genuine sense of paradoxical terror and wonderment, bringing the whole thing to a relieving climactic conclusion. And then came this favorite, spirited, at first glance light-hearted work of Gershwin, which was performed in what is probably the closest-to-perfection idiomatic manner one can wish for. In fact, these two pieces together ultimately sounded like an hour-long statement to self-knowledge, self-acceptance and above all, self-fulfilment in engaging with the discovery of other cultures.