Three days after conducting his final Così fan tutte of the season at the Metropolitan Opera, James Levine and the Met Orchestra traveled a few blocks south to Carnegie Hall, to perform a program of works by Czech composer Antonin Dvořák. Their final appearance of the season was marked by impeccable musicality and infectious enthusiasm. Throughout the program – the familiar progression from an overture to a concerto to a symphony – Mr Levine and the musicians brought control and diligence to the music.

James Levine © Marty Sohl | Met Opera
James Levine
© Marty Sohl | Met Opera

Volume and energy levels were high during the Carnival Overture of 1891, which Dvořák described as depicting the following scene: “The lonely, contemplative wanderer reaches the city at nightfall, where a carnival is in full swing”. The opening rounds of joyous music, with the tambourine gamboling in the background, certainly brought to mind a festive occasion. With no sets or singers to accompany, the Orchestra had to call forth the scenes themselves, an endeavor they accomplished skillfully. Their illustrations were vivid and complete, from the crepuscular harp to the swirling and swaying violins. The transition to more languid, sweeping melodies brought to mind the introspection of the nameless traveler, and then good cheer bubbled up once again with the full and energetic return to the opening melodies.

 The Orchestra was joined by cellist Lynn Harrell for Dvořák's Cello Concerto in B minor, composed from 1894 to 1895. Less cinematic than the Carnival Overture, the concerto seems to invoke a sensation, rather than a scene, of the homeland Dvořák longed for throughout his years teaching and residing in New York. Mr Levine and the orchestra kept the opening bars brisk and perceptive, never slipping into vagueries. Throughout the orchestral beginning, the sounds and emotions were clear and bright. The cello part begins a few minutes in, after a particularly beautiful passage in the strings introduced by a jubilant trumpet call.

 Though emotive and decisive, Mr Harrell’s tone was rough from the start, approaching percussiveness and even savagery at times. His scowl was sometimes replaced by a calm, content expression, matched by a warmer tone and smoother slides, particularly during the passage after the stormy section of the second movement. He blended lusciously with the winds in the opening of this movement, but his higher passages, especially the trills, sounded thin and occasionally off-pitch. This movement was also marked by a surprisingly slow tempo; the otherwise excellent soloist and ensemble reduced themselves to a plod before diving into the livelier third movement. Here, Mr Harrell reached his high point, bringing emotion and sincerity to his sound, which I nevertheless found overall to be unconvincing. His encore, the prelude from J.S. Bach’s Suite no. 1 in G major, BWV 1007, was much more palatable. After dedicating this performance to his father, baritone Mack Harrell, Mr Harrell treated us all to a lovely and thoughtful rendition of this well-known work.

Dvořák's Symphony no. 7 in D minor was a departure from his “lighter, folksier” style and an endeavor at a more “Brahmsian” work. The soaring violins of the first movement presented a stark contrast with their rapid sawing during the closing movement of the Cello Concerto. The thunderous moments eventually resolved into a solemn, even pensive close to the first movement, which was followed by the chromatic strains of the second movement. The questioning brass melodies, echoed by the flute and braided together with the violins, were resolved in the final peaceful notes before the orchestra hopped into the dance-like third movement. Throughout this and the final movement, Mr Levine pulled the Met Orchestra up and down crescendos and decrescendos, with every clarinet arpeggio and pizzicato pluck under his expert control.

With the inventive programming of the “Spring for Music” series the preceding week, not to mention David Lang’s curated series collected stories the week before that, an all-Dvořák program seemed like a bit of a snooze. It’s a testament to the cohesion and craft of the Met Orchestra and Mr Levine that the Hall was so enlivened, right up to the final glorious chords.

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