What Makes for a Winning Conductor?

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I have heard more than a few conductors remark, when asked if there are any compensations for the inevitable fact that we are all getting older, that for a maestro his seventies can be a golden time. He (or she) will have at least half a century of knowledge and experience but still enough force to bring a life's work to bear on classic and new pieces of music. Many conductors use their seventies to return to beloved scores and visit them afresh.

James Levine, who has worked at the Metropolitan Opera since 1971, will turn 70 on Sunday. He is, of course, an extraordinary case in so many ways. Few conductors in the last century have done so much music so exceptionally well. While we might think of him primarily in terms of opera (and he has led nearly 2500 performances of 85 operas at the Met), he also has a broad and deep record of achievement in the symphonic repertory as well. What is less discussed is the degree to which he has explored and advocated for the work of contemporary composers and those whose music is not what might be called "easy listening" but is, nonetheless, important and merits regular performance.

It takes many gifts and talents to be an outstanding conductor. First, of course, is a facility with music and the ability to look at a score and develop a concept of what the composer intended. This means learning and analyzing all of the notes and, in the case of an opera, the words. Then, a conductor begins a long process of deciding how the piece should sound. A symphonic conductor is engaged in pure music, even if a piece is thematic (such as a Strauss tone poem). An opera conductor treats the score as pure music but also as a narrative device for the story being told. When I teach opera, I always emphasize that the story of an opera is told more in the music than in the words.

One could say that a musical score is to a conductor what a recipe is to a cook in that it offers guidelines for creation of something immediate that will also ultimately be woven into the fabric of memory. When a performance has concluded it cannot be replicated exactly as it was. The same could be said for a chef who beautifully creates a dish and, while she could do it again, it will never taste exactly the same.

What is different is that someone cooking is typically alone in engaging in the creative process. A conductor must communicate with and inspire others to realize this conception of the music, all the while allowing the musicians a freedom to do their best work.

Achieving the narrative and musical effects a conductor seeks requires remarkable skill, sensitivity, tact and, say I, elegance and humanity. "Elegance" is a word we can easily dismiss in casual times as representing a value that is too formal. But elegance in music has its place and Levine is one of the most elegant of conductors along with Claudio Abbado, my other paragon of how the job should be done. To understand what I mean, watch and listen as Levine conducts the Bacchanale from Saint-Saens's Samson et Dalila. Most conductors treat this music as a gaudy showpiece, but Levine sees it as a work that is by turns sensual, lyrical and dynamic. He brings so much more to it than most conductors in this elegant interpretation:

Unlike the master chef, the great conductor must have not only manual skills and superb taste, but the essential gifts of acute hearing and the ability to communicate with musicians in verbal and non-verbal ways. Rehearsal is where ideas and consensus are achieved. The transformative event -- the magic -- happens in performance as conductor and fellow musicians connect to the music and to one another. The gestures and movement of a conductor should not enact the music but simply bring forth the best playing from the musicians. Levine is a master at all of this and has the ability to make it happen in orchestra players as well as singers, all of whom report that working with him in an opera is the summit of their performing lives.

Levine also has excelled as a musical partner/pianist in vocal recitals. He understands that a three-minute song can be a world unto itself as much as a symphony or an opera and knows how to make every moment and every word count.

A conductor who has a long affiliation with one orchestra has a large role in shaping what it sounds like. He is involved in choosing new musicians who, in effect, become how the orchestra plays. Levine has been hiring musicians for the Met Orchestra since 1973 and is often said to have rebuilt the orchestra three times. He kept the best of the veteran artists such as Dick Horowitz as well as adding vibrant younger players who became uniquely responsive to what Levine seeks in performance.

I hear opera all over the world and can confidently say that the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra has no competition as the best opera orchestra of all. My opinion is, admittedly, biased but also highly informed. And I am hardly alone in this view--the Met orchestra was named the world's best in the International Opera Awards last April. Of Levine's many achievements, this orchestra is his greatest. The fact that they are also a splendid ensemble in the symphonic repertory is lagniappe, a delightful plus.

The Met also has a superb chorus, now headed by Donald Palumbo, whose versatility and musicianship enable them to sing and act in all kinds of repertory. As music director for four decades, Levine has been the guiding influence in how the chorus should sound.

In 1980, Levine created its young artist program, now called the Lindemann Young Artist Development, which has identified and fostered gifted singers, coaches and pianists. Levine is the embodiment of the dual nature of the term maestro in that he is a conductor and a teacher. Education and artist development have been at the core of his work even when he has been sidelined from conducting.

Levine is also exceptional, sad to say, in that he has been famously beset with a barrage of illnesses and injuries in recent years that would dampen anyone's spirit, certainly a person whose physical well-being is fundamental for the execution of his work. His medical challenges, and those of other musicians, made me ponder 18 months ago about illness as metaphor for performing artists. I think it is important, for performers and all people with significant medical issues, that they do not come to be identified by their afflictions. The greatest artists operate on a plane in which they live their art. Their physical difficulties, daunting though they are, become a different road to creativity and insight.

And yet, Levine was unable to conduct for about two years, even if his engagement with music and his gifts were undiminished. Anyone who attended Levine’s return to conducting the Met Orchestra on May 19 at Carnegie Hall will recall the combination of apprehension and hopefulness that pervaded the audience before Levine made his appearance in a motorized chair that was raised on a platform so that he could see his musicians and they could see him.

Once he began to conduct the prelude from Lohengrin, it was clear that musically everything was not only intact, but deepened. It was absolutely gorgeous and many audience members began to weep, not just because of the music's beauty but the realization of what had been missing. The Met orchestra plays wonderfully under almost every conductor, but there is an a ecstatic glow that happens when they perform with Levine. Here is a performance of the Lohengrin prelude from long ago. I can assure you that the rendition he did at Carnegie Hall was many times more moving and profound.

I have heard grumbling (and read a lot of it in social media) that Levine, because he had to curtail his conducting activities due to illness and injury, should take a cut in pay or be denied it entirely. Apart from the repugnant cruelty of this, I think it is misguided. According to a 2012 article in Business Week, Levine's annual salary is somewhat more than $2 million while the Met's total budget is at least $325 million.

In other words, for all that he has contributed (and continues to contribute) to the quality of music-making at the Met, the cost of this is less than one-percent of the company's budget. This is what the British call "good value for money," especially in an organization that often spends so profligately on productions and initiatives that don't seem like wise investments. What Levine has given the Met, even when facing medical challenges, is a ballast of musical excellence that is priceless. And he still does.

Next season, Levine will conduct three of his favorite scores (Così fan tutte; Falstaff; Wozzeck) and concerts at Carnegie Hall. He will also contribute in innumerable ways, tangible and intangible, to musical life as he will touch and inspire musicians and audiences and, I hope, will restore elegance to an art form that has been cheapened and coarsened the world over. For James Levine at age 70, there is great work to be done.