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Hey, Baby, It's Jimmy

Today, Levine spends a lot of time with his brother, Tom, a sculptor, particularly on the road, where Tom will act as de facto assistant. Levine’s sister, Janet, a marriage counselor, also comes to many performances. Last summer, I saw Tom and Helen at Tanglewood, and in the conductor’s rustic dressing room, I mentioned to Levine that he seems to have a particularly close family. How important is that in terms of allowing him to do what he does, I asked. “The truth? I’m very lucky that it is like that. But if it weren’t, I’d be sorry, but . . . ” He trailed off and shrugged. “What could I do?” In Levine’s mind, one imagines, true feeling comes from Wagner, from Mozart; to idealize one’s family life would be mawkish.

Even now, when Levine’s performances are perhaps more acclaimed than ever, not everyone raves about the maestro. To some critics, his single-minded devotion to a composer’s conception is a liability. New York’s own classical-music critic, Peter G. Davis, though he believes Levine’s “raw musical gift is extraordinary,” nevertheless finds that in his performances, “there doesn’t seem to be any there there. I don’t get a point of view. Karajan and Bernstein—you could talk for hours about their interpretations. You don’t have that with Levine.”

“People will say, ‘Oh, Jimmy—he’s so fanatic.’ But there are so many contemporary productions that just destroy the piece, for nothing.”

Levine, for his part, doesn’t worry about such criticism, content to focus wholly on making music, on finding new revelations in his favorite works. Five minutes into our first interview in his memento-bedecked Met office—with its series of photo-collages on the wall of Levine’s close friend Tatiana Troyanos, the mezzo-soprano who died in 1993—the conductor suddenly asks his assistant to bring him the vocal score of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito.

Mozart is a particular Levine specialty, and I’m hoping to get a Levine-Mozart comparison out of him—the two child prodigies. But he wants to talk about a fermata.

In musical notation, a fermata is a pause of unspecified length that can be placed over an individual note or rest to break time, to give added weight to a particular moment in the score. A fermata can pose knotty interpretive questions, and Levine wouldn’t want to go against what Mozart willed. We spread out the score, and he takes me through a passage to which he’s devoted considerable thought ever since he first performed the opera as a young man in Salzburg with Troyanos in the pants role of Sesto. The passage lasts about twenty seconds, tops, in an opera more than three hours long.

“Look at this. This is ‘Parto, parto,’ Sesto’s aria in the first act,” he begins. “Now, notice here, a fermata. And there’s another one on the rest. And there’s one on the chord. And there’s one on the rest. And there’s one on the chord. How many are there? What do they mean? Are they all the same length? Are they different? What are they there for anyway? I found that such a thorny interpretation problem when I did the aria with Tatiana. I made them completely arbitrary. Long, short, okay. Enter Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. He was the stage director for this production in Salzburg, and he’d also seen those fermatas. What could Mozart have wanted? Well, he realized what Mozart must have visualized. Sesto pleads and begs and tries to get [his love interest Vitellia] on his wavelength, but she centers on complete scorn, complete silence, complete hauteur.

“So what did Jean-Pierre do? He brought Vitellia downstage, right in front of the prompter box, where she stood, looking completely forbidding. Sesto came up one side: ‘Guardami’ [Look at me]. Nothing from the lady—a pause. He went around the other side. ‘Guardami.’ Nothing from the lady—another pause. He backs up, looks down—a pause. The point is, by putting the crisis on the stage, Ponnelle had a way to use the time, reconverting what the fermatas had been put there for.”

Levine too pauses for a moment. He lets sink in this idea of Mozart as both musician and dramatist, and of the ability of subtle musical details to reflect human feeling. “That gives me chills.”

When Levine likes a work—whether as a conductor or an audience member—he returns to it over and over. “When you do a piece for the first time, you are so far from what you will be able to do with it if you keep doing it. If you like a film, see it again—it’s completely different.” Describing his ever-growing relationship to La Clemenza di Tito, he says, “It was like what happens if you love somebody, and then you discover a characteristic of theirs you didn’t see before that makes it even more marvelous.”