Friday, May 27, 2011

From Prodigy to an Institution: James Levine

Plácido Domingo calls him not just a “great conductor, but a great opera conductor.” Considering the source, that says plenty. In addition to coaching the tenor through some of his signatures roles, James Levine led the artistic and financial comeback of the Metropolitan Opera. As part of its 25th season, American Masters profiles James Levine as he celebrates his 40th anniversary at the Met with the debut of producer-director Susan Froemke’s James Levine: America’s Maestro, which airs on most PBS stations this coming Wednesday.

Levine was a frighteningly precocious musical talent, who fell in love with conducting at an early age. Yet, he credits his father, a “sweet” big band leader, for encouraging him to maintain his piano chops, advice the maestro is “eternally grateful” for. When Levine made his debut the Met was not really the Met, as it is now. Though the filmmakers (working in close collaboration with the venerable institution) do not go into gory details, it is clear the Opera’s fiscal problems were affecting the quality of its productions. It was still a high profile gig though, which is why Levine was advised to accept their invitation, if he thought he could make a production work there. Needless to say, he could and did. Quickly appointed music director, Levine built the Met Orchestra back into one of the world’s most respected ensembles.

Appropriately, Maestro is at its best showing Levine at work. We see him prep the orchestra for their premiere performance of Beethoven’s Fifth (believe it or not) and watch as he brings the same enthusiasm to coaching the singers accepted by the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program (LYADP). Recognizing opera’s increasing reliance on Domingo and Pavarotti, not just as commercial draws, but for fundamental casting considerations (who else was there?), Levine spearheaded LYADP to ensure a future generation of talent. Though he puts on a show of conducting for the crowd, he definitely seems to be much more like the football coach who tries to do all his work in the week leading up to Sunday, rather than during the big game.

Aside from Levine’s struggle with chronic back pain, Maestro entirely ignores Levine’s private life. Frankly, who really cares anyway? If he is in fact married to music, so much the better for his fans (and he definitely has them). A good behind-the-scenes look at a world class opera and a convincing tribute to the man who brought it back to prominence, Maestro airs nationally this coming Wednesday (6/1) on most PBS outlets.