Conductors under attack

First Simon

Rattle, and now James

Levine: it’s been a bad week for hugely-admired conductors being sniped

at in the press, all the more so for me personally, since these are both at

the very top of my list of favourite living maestros. So what gives?

The attack on Rattle has been led by Axel Brüggemann, who wrote an article

for Welt am Sonntag headlined "Simon von Rattle". The basic thesis

seems to be that Rattle, despite starting off wonderfully, is now lapsing into

the authoritarian excesses of his feared-and-revered predecessor Herbert von

Karajan. The famous marriage between Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic seems

to have hit a rocky patch, according to Brüggemann, who says in his wonderfully

German way that "while Rattle romps expressively on the podium, the Philharmonic

musicians sometimes tend to play as inconsequentially as if they were a wife

reaching to the fridge to get out a beer for her husband".

The Guardian article also notes that the Rattle/Berlin Proms last year were

"underwhelming" and "bland", while his Idomeneo at Glyndebourne

also received mixed reviews. That said, he seems to be fighting back with the

scheduling for this year’s Proms: Beethoven’s Ninth on the Sunday, followed

by Messiaen’s magnificent Éclairs sur l’Au-delà… on

the Monday – the kind of piece which would have brought Karajan out in

a cold sweat.

But it’s certainly possible that the Berlin Philharmonic, despite loving Rattle

as a guest conductor for many years before he took over as music director, is

now having institutional second thoughts. Perhaps the two are more suited for

a torrid affair than for a decades-long marriage. (And the relationship could

conceivably last that long: Rattle is only 48, after all, and conductors are

legendarily long-lived.)

While conductors do often get better with age, after all, it’s only natural

to expect the more mercurial conductors, like Rattle, to have some problems

with consistency. And while Rattle did wonders with the City of Birmingham Symphony

Orchestra, he was not burdened at the time with the sky-high expectations that

accompanied him to Berlin, nor with the institutional inertia of a band as heavy

and storied as the Berlin Phil.

My guess is that if Rattle is having some difficulties right now – and

really I have little reason to believe that he is – he will not only overcome

them, but turn the experience to his advantage. Something of a prodigy, his

rise in the music world has been steady and largely obstacle-free, and as horn

player Howard Howard (really) says of James Levine, "personal hardship

tends to make more of an artist – I think you hear the difference between

someone who has had a happy, secure life and someone who has had some misery."

I’m less sanguine about Levine, however. I’m glad I saw him quite a lot when

I first moved to New York seven years ago, because thinking back to more recent

performances, I’ve not felt the same kind of fire. And the complaints certainly

have the ring of truth about them: that, conducting sitting down, he gradually

slumps, over the course of long operas to the point at which players at the

back of the pit can’t even see the baton any more – which, in any case,

he barely bothers to move.

To say that "my major communication tool always is my eyes" is all

well and good, but that’s true of Rattle as well, and he certainly uses his

hands to great effect the whole time. I’m actually a fan of minimalist conductors

who don’t jump up and down and get all excited, but the one thing they all have

in common is that they beat time very clearly. Levine seems to be using his

orchestra’s depth of experience as a crutch which allows him to put minimal

physical energy into his performances, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Rattle and Levine both, of course, are greatly praised by the managers of their

orchestras, but such praise can become self-defeating when you have the managing

director of the Boston Symphony say that Levine’s "energy level is still

way beyond the norm". That’s clearly not true: for one thing, he conducts

even the shortest programmes sitting down. In general, praise only means something

when it’s conceivable that the person doing the praising could conceivably say

anything else, and that doesn’t seem to be the case with respect to the people

quoted in these articles.

Now that Levine’s contract has been extended to 2011, in fact, I’m a little

bit worried about the future of the Met Orchestra – probably the best

orchestra in the USA. Valery Gergiev has been getting decidedly mixed reviews

of late: it seems he might have the same strain of Russian hubris that afflicts

people like Yuri Bashmet, who start believing their own hype to the point at

which they think they’re above things like rehearsals and preparatory work.

If neither Levine nor Gergiev is performing at the height of his abilities,

there’s certainly a risk that the Met Orchestra will start a long, slow decline

into complacency.

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