Why James Levine ever chose to commit so much time and energy to the comparatively low-profile Munich Philharmonic has never made much sense, and the orchestra's recent Carnegie Hall concerts did little to dispel the mystery. Officially designated Munich's "chief conductor" in 1999 (a strangely self-effacing job description for the title-conscious maestro), Levine will relinquish the post in 2004 when he assumes a far more prestigious appointment, music director of the Boston Symphony. After that, his Munich interim will surely seem like a blip on this chronic overachiever's CV, especially since there will apparently be no commercial recordings to document the relationship.
Still, for New Yorkers at least, it was interesting to hear Levine lead an orchestra other than his Met band. The three generous programs were dominated by German staples (symphonies by Mahler, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms), with a flavoring of Americana: Ives's Three Places in New England and John Harbison's Symphony No. 3. If the Philharmonic didn't toss off these scores with the same virtuosity that the Met musicians summon up so readily, the two orchestras do have much in common, notably an aggressive instrumental attack along with a neon-lit brilliance that glares as often as it dazzles.
The musical approach was also similar: broad phrases, lingering tempos, and much savoring of the moment, frequently at the expense of the whole. The Mahler Fourth suffered most in that respect, a self-regarding interpretation that eventually lost sight of reality entirely and seemed to last forever. The other symphonies received more reasonable treatment and were certainly played with distinction, but even here the musical gestures sounded curiously manufactured and without any real musical impulse -- a clear case of nice suit, nobody in it. Only in the two American works did I get a sense of engagement and spontaneity -- in particular the Harbison symphony, a one-movement work of considerable emotional range and substance.
The Munich Philharmonic
Three concerts conducted by James Levine at Carnegie Hall.