CULTURE

James Levine’s Greek debut

James Levine, one of the most prominent maestros of our time, is scheduled to conduct the UBS Verbier Festival Youth Orchestra at the Athens Concert Hall on Thursday. A charity event, the concert features works by Brahms and Berlioz. Known as our guide to the imaginary world of classical music and animation in «Fantasia 2000» – a follow-up of the original Walt Disney classic – Levine was also the fourth prominent musician in the Three Tenors’ world tour in 1996. It is the maestro’s first appearance in Greece. Born into a Jewish family in Cincinnati in 1943, Levine’s first appearance came at the age of 10, when as a child prodigy pianist he interpreted works by Mendelssohn. A graduate of New York’s Juilliard School, his career began in the Cleveland Orchestra, where he was assistant to George Szell – the youngest musician ever to hold the position. Over the last nearly 30 years, Levine has remained faithful to one cause, New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, affectionately known as the Met. Rarely traveling beyond the boundaries of the USA, the great maestro is entirely dedicated to the Met which demands his attention seven months a year – leaving limited free time for scheduling other appearances. Yet Levine maintains strong ties with two major European events: the Bairoit Festival, where he has been conducting since 1982; and the Salzburg Festival, where his first appearance in 1976 was the start of a 17-year collaboration – it was Levine himself who put an end to the collaboration after the death of Herbert von Karajan. Levine and Karajan were extremely close, and many were surprised when Levine was not chosen as Karajan’s successor at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. They had much in common – besides working with the same recording labels. Sharing a common vision, they approached music in similar ways and enjoyed the same passion for great composers’ repertoires. They also shared a love of opera, while Karajan presented Hollywood-style productions in Salzburg, Levine worked with Karajan’s people for productions in New York. Nevertheless, though Salzburg remained the most elitist of music festivals, the Metropolitan Opera turned out to be the most popular among the world’s greatest opera houses. According to The New York Times, Levine’s greatest achievement, so far, has been the orchestra’s improvement. When he took over the helm, Levine had to face a number of financial problems (due to his predecessor’s overspending), while there was also a lot of criticism concerning the orchestra’s quality. Following a hard and concentrated effort, the orchestra has improved tremendously and these days the ensemble performs every night, as well as extra matinee performances at Carnegie Hall each week. «Everything happened in a natural way, without pressure,» Levine has said in the past. «It’s like when you meet someone and develop a strong friendly bond, one which can bear fruit. Of course, there is a technical side, which involves teaching, preparation and a spirit of cooperation. Nowadays, when I interrupt in the middle of a rehearsal, 99 percent of the time the musicians know exactly what I’m going to say. It is my responsibility to surprise them. By renewing our collaboration, we begin exchanging ideas again, and the most intense moments are those during which the orchestra behaves as a grand chamber music ensemble, where each one listens to the other’s music.» At the Met, Levine conducts a large number of operas and concerts, while the hard work put into rehearsals has impressed even members of the Vienna Philharmonic. It is no coincidence that 10 years ago, when the orchestra was asked to name a lead musician for some Mozart recordings – works they had previously recorded under the baton of Karl Bohm – they choose Levine. Levine’s first collaboration with the Metropolitan Opera took place in 1971, and in 1976 he was named as its musical director. In 1986 he was appointed artistic director – the first in the theater’s history. As he breathed new life into the orchestra, Levine also offered opportunities to young singers. At the same time, he brought classical music and opera into the homes of the American people through broadcasts of «Live from the Met.» James Levine conducts the UBS Verbier Festival Youth Orchestra at the Athens Concert Hall this Thursday, at 1 Kokkali & Vas. Sofias, tel 210.728.2000 (website www.megaron.gr).