Levine/Met Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, New York

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No rest for the worthy. On Saturday, the Metropolitan Opera closed its season. Sunday afternoon, James Levine, over-achiever in excelsis, came right back to work with his high-powered pit band, this time at Carnegie Hall. The event was non-operatic, the agenda complex.

Levine and friends pleased, or at least appeased, the happy-tune crowd with some splendid Mendelssohn and Mozart. But the central attraction involved gnarly modernism, courtesy of Elliott Carter. Levine has long championed this grand old iconoclast, anno 1908, with the Boston Symphony. Here the dauntless maestro celebrated the dauntless composer with a pair of relatively recent challenges, Three Illusions (2004) and Dialogues for Piano and Chamber Orchestra (2003). The Met players, virtuosic and tireless, rose nobly to the occasion.

Three Illusions, commissioned for Boston, involves a triptych of compact miniatures. Each lasts only three minutes and represents a literary abstraction (Don Quixote, The Fountain of Youth and More’s Utopia). The images, essentially intellectual, are defined by dense timbral clashes and careful textural evolutions. The Dialogues, commissioned for the BBC and first performed by the London Sinfonietta under Oliver Knussen, provides 15 minutes of wild exercise for the steely fingers of Nicolas Hodges. The British pianist virtually owns the piece. Unfazed by the thorniest trials, he capitalises on stark dynamic contrasts and jolting juxtapositions while trading impulses with an argumentative ensemble. The terse, neatly crafted exchanges evolve with competitive bravado, occasionally offset by soft-edged reflection.

After the ultimate thunderclap, the normally conservative audience turned gratifyingly progressive. It confirmed that all living legends, even abrasive ones, earn mass approval sooner or later (usually later). Frail but spry, Carter basked in his standing ovation.

At hum-along time Levine treated Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony with not-so-tender yet emphatically loving care, favouring broad accents, persuasive tempo extremes and pervasively lush sonorities. Passing blemishes meant little. When it came to Mozart’s Jupiter, he exerted patrician poise here, lusty grandeur there, and, most important, expressive warmth everywhere. All this and cool Carter too.
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