Maestro on a mission to teach

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James Levine has been involved in the training of young musicians at such festivals as Aspen, Ravinia and Verbier, and through the Metropolitan Opera’s young artists’ programme. But his work with the Tanglewood Music Center, the educational wing of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home in western Massachusetts, is drawing special attention.

As music director of the Boston Symphony, Levine is the de facto artistic chief of the TMC. But where BSO music directors over the years have been “more or less interested” in the TMC, according to its director Ellen Highstein, “Levine is unbelievably interested”. In his first Tanglewood season two years ago he whipped the TMC’s youthful orchestra into amazing shape for a daunting Wagner concert consisting of Die Walküre, Act 1, and Götterdämmerung, Act 3 – unknown territory for most in the orchestra.

Levine is conducting the TMC for the first time in a staged version of a full-length opera, Mozart’s Così fan tutte. And unlike the TMC orchestra’s concert performances of larger-scale operas – Verdi’s Don Carlo this year – it is cast not with famous international singers but with TMC young artists, or fellows, as they are called. Ira Schiff’s delightful production brings the opera’s comic verve to the fore without glossing over its darker undertones.

“How we teach is the most important thing we do,” says Levine. He sees “something extraordinary about the atmosphere” at Tanglewood. The choice of the 150 fellows is highly selective, yet they include a full range of performers – singers, instrumentalists, conductors – as well as composers. In his seven weeks at Tanglewood this summer, Levine is involved with every TMC department, even meeting the composers to advise them how conductors assimilate and perform new scores. “We want the fellows to have as full an experience as possible without it becoming hectic.”

For Levine, working with young performers is “remarkably similar” to working with seasoned professionals. The fellows have “technique, great reflexes and a passion for music, but not a lot of knowledge of style. So we concentrate on that, distinguishing things that must be done a certain way with those that can be done in different ways.” As with his rehearsals of professionals, he stresses the importance of early exposure to works so they can sink in. “Pianists and other solo instrumentalists learn works gradually. But orchestras are expected to see a piece on Tuesday morning and perform it perfectly on Thursday night. I want them to digest the music gradually, which requires care in rehearsal scheduling.”

For Così, Levine, whose other job is music director of the Metropolitan Opera, brought in two coaches from the Met. Extensive sessions with these yielded exceptionally fluent, conversation-like delivery of the recitatives, and the production’s fast pace and sense of realism. Levine likes the fact that Siff’s production has the generational look of the singers performing it, and he is even more pleased that Mozart’s musical values are not traduced. (“The musical dimension makes opera different, and if directors don’t recognise this, they should stick to theatre,” he says.)

In lieu of Naples, John Michael Deegan and Sarah Conly’s set cleverly positions the action in a two-story oceanside house apparently in Miami Beach. When the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella gaze at images of their lovers, they look not at miniature portraits but at photos on their cell phones (which pop up amusingly on the surtitle screen). Siff does, however, follow a dubious trend by creating visual analogues to the score’s more extreme vocal gestures: Fiordiligi should sing high B flats in the Act One finale as an expression of resolve, not because Ferrando tickles her.

The singers are young professionals, some of whom have already made significant career steps. The chance to sing under Levine, however, apparently took precedence over summertime opportunities. Lauren Skuce was a fine Fiordiligi who invested her two show-stopping arias with beautifully resonant tone and stylistic assurance. Kathryn Leemhuis contributed a hot-to-trot Dorabella, wielding her robust mezzo assertively. Emily Albrink’s sparklingly sung Despina was appealingly sultry and jaded.

The men were less good. Ramone Diggs sang Ferrando with a velvety tenor that coped nicely with the tessitura of the aria “Ah lo veggio” but ran into intonation problems. Michael Weyandt’s baritone was a bit light for Guglielmo. Paul Scholten, looking rather like a used-car salesman in his white suit and open collar, proved an effective Don Alfonso. Many of the elements of Levine’s reading are familiar from his many performances of the opera at the Met – the bracing attacks and dynamism of the quick numbers, for instance, or such loving details as how he stretches the ascending clarinet figure in Fiordiligi’s aria “Per pietà”. The orchestra responded handsomely.

Discussion about how he interacts with the orchestra draws observations about conducting technique. “Some degree of gestural shaping is necessary, but generally I want people to hear the music, not see it,” Levine says. He adds, however, that he needs to be more demonstrative with the TMC orchestra simply because the players are less familiar with him. “George Szell [an early mentor] was totally different when he worked with another orchestra than with his own.”

The morning after the first Così finds Levine participating in a chamber concert of thorny scores by Schoenberg, Ligeti and Charles Wuorinen, led by the TMC’s three conducting fellows. Levine himself conducts excerpts from Poulenc’s charming Le bal masqué, although he is listed as a coach for the entire programme. “I attended rehearsals and listened straight through but also stopped them and commented,” he says. “It’s just a question of making sure they get what they need.” With that he leaves the interview in favour of a “Così fan tutte nap” before the evening’s performance.

www.tanglewood.org

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