James Levine's office is off a short, quiet corridor in the Metropolitan Opera House. It is small and cozy, crammed with photographs, memorabilia, and curios, each with a story behind it.
On top of a bookcase, for example, a hat sits rakishly with a huge pink feather sweeping atop it. It was often worn by the Met's Don Giovannis of the 1940s, like Ezio Pinza, and Levine himself once sported it. "It was during a rehearsal for La traviata a few years ago," he recalls. "We were working on the party scene in Flora's house, and we were having difficulty getting going. So after the break I came back wearing that hat, and immediately I had everyone's full attention!"
The subjects at hand are two forthcoming Carnegie Hall concerts, which represent the two principal feathers in his cap — the Metropolitan Opera and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. But Levine is discursive and inclusive, and one thing leads to another in surprising ways.
On March 4 he brings The MET Chamber Ensemble to Zankel Hall for works by Mozart (the A-Major Piano Concerto, K. 414, with himself at the keyboard), Brahms (the Second Serenade), and Elliott Carter (the song cycle on poems by Elizabeth Bishop, A Mirror on Which to Dwell, with soprano Lucy Shelton as soloist). On February 12 he leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Berlioz's "dramatic legend,'' La Damnation de Faust, with a cast headed by mezzo Yvonne Naef, tenor Paul Groves, and the great Belgian baritone José van Dam in one of his signature roles, Méphistophélès.
It is an article of faith with Levine that great symphonic orchestras should play operas and that great operatic orchestras should play the concert literature. Musicians in both kinds of ensemble should sharpen their ears and reflexes by playing chamber music.
"To work one-on-one in small chamber-music groups improves communication and develops more subtlety in the playing," Levine says decisively. He also believes in visiting and revisiting the major works of his repertory on a systematic basis. He vividly remembers conducting La Damnation de Faust at the Ravinia Festival in 1976, and he has since conducted Berlioz's "dramatic symphony'' in London, Los Angeles, and Munich, as well as with The MET Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, in Europe, and in Japan.
"Berlioz's operas Les Troyens and Benvenuto Cellini work very well in concert," Levine says. "And Damnation could work very well onstage, although that was never the composer's intention. It is a thrill for me to work with the BSO on this piece. The work is so much a part of the orchestra's history, and the old recording under Charles Munch is so much a part of mine — I had it when I was a kid. And I worked on the score with my teacher, the French conductor Jean Morel, when I was a student at Juilliard. He used to say if you set up a scale and put all of Berlioz's works but La Damnation on one side, and La Damnation on the other, the scale would balance. That struck me as a very Gallic way to put it, although I'm not sure anyone would agree with that today now that Les Troyens is so much better known than it was then.
"Still, La Damnation de Faust is one of the greatest pieces there is. The piece has a classical structure, yet everything in its form and expression is pushing the boundaries. It is so spread out, so panoramic, yet at the same time it is amazingly intimate and personal, and each episode has its own individual character. It starts as if it were already going on somewhere, and the apotheosis of Marguerite at the ending is quiet, as if a conventional climax at the every end were not the point. When it is over you want to hear it all again."
The MET Chamber Ensemble program features a work by one of Levine's favorite composers, Elliott Carter. A Mirror on Which to Dwell (1975) is the first of an impressive series of works for vocal soloist and chamber ensemble. In 1975, Levine, then 32, was already in his fourth year at the Met, focusing on Verdi; he had more than 100 performances behind him — and more than 3,000 (and counting) to come. "It amazes me that Elliott at 98 is still turning out the most marvelous music," he says. "And it pleases me that audiences are becoming more and more familiar with it. Every time you come to him with a suggestion for a new piece, he builds on it and comes out with astonishing and unpredictable things."
And though Mozart and Carter may be separated by centuries, Levine finds a number of attributes the two share that bridge the divide: "The music of both composers is full of energy; it is positive and buoyant. And their music is full of intellectually fascinating and emotionally exciting elements. It's also worth mentioning that Elliott likes Mozart very much. I have been doing pieces of Mozart on programs with Elliott's music, and he always stays to hear the Mozart works and always has something pertinent and thoughtful to say afterwards." And in a characteristically telling way, Levine adds, "Unlike most people, he was brought up with new music — Ives and Stravinsky and Copland — rather than the old, but he loves Mozart too."
Richard Dyer recently retired from The Boston Globe after 33 years of writing about music there.