Among persistent rumors about James Levine’s imminent retirement from his long tenure as music director of The Metropolitan Opera, every opportunity to see him on stage should be treasured. Levine was at his best conducting the MET Chamber Orchestra at the Weill Recital Hall, proving once more his ability to transform with his magical wand musicians used to playing every night in the opera’s orchestra pit into a veritable chamber ensemble. Famous for leading large orchestral works, Levine has always been keen to adapt to the different acoustical demands of chamber music. One can only regret the days of those wonderful song recitals when he regularly appeared at the piano accompanying a singer he believed deserved his attention and care.

James Levine © James Meyer
James Levine
© James Meyer

The late Sunday afternoon concert, in the smallest of Carnegie Hall performance spaces, featured two serenades composed 150 years apart, both connected to and at the same time very much afar from the origins of this musical form. The shorter one, Arnold Schoenberg’s Serenade, first performed in 1924, represents a somewhat painful effort to bridge the gap between the requirements of theoretical dodecaphonism and the practicalities of composing and providing instrumentation for dance inspired music. The composer oddly combined pluck instruments – guitar, mandolin – with a string trio and two clarinets. Under Levine’s baton, the piece sounded rather Mahlerian, with hints of Stravinsky; dances morphed one into another, rhythms and moods were constantly shifting.

The only truly 12-tone movement is the one setting a German translation of Petrarch’s Sonnet no. 217 to music. Featured in this central part was the up and coming bass-baritone Brandon Cedel, a current member of the Metropolitan’s Opera Lindemann Young Artists Development Program. His mellifluous voice blended well into the overall textural fabric.

Mozart’s Serenade in B flat Major for winds, K361, the “Gran Partita”, is one of his most expansive instrumental works, a marvelous musical piece, alas too rarely performed. The composer scored it for 13 instruments, adding to the usual wind octet an additional two horns, a pair of basset horns and, curiously, a single string bass in order to compensate for all the upper-range sound. This particular instrumentation allowed Mozart to explore new timbral connections between oboe, clarinet, and basset horn. They were clearly highlighted during this performance, mainly in the amazing Adagio.

Levine drew a smooth and well integrated sound from his players, shaping every single phrase beautifully. He constantly found the exact compromise between letting individual “voices” soar – Nathan Hughes’ oboe in the fifth variation of the Tema con variazioni – and sustaining a clear and sensuous overall musical canvas. Levine has always shown a special affinity for the music of both Viennese Schools, for the operas of Mozart, Schoenberg and Webern. His latest concert proved that his interest is not limited to the large scale compositions. Moreover, he was still able to convey his love for this particular music to an enthusiastic public.

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