There's really no replacing James Levine, either in an American opera house or in an American symphony hall. Especially in New York. And especially at the Met -- aka The House That Jimmy Built. Because before he came along the Metropolitan Opera was a big karaoke house full of star singers (a few of them virtually unknown in Europe), with an orchestra led by an always-changing roster of imported conductors, a few of them great, most not that great to begin with.And what we have now -- a standard of reliable excellence, a well-defined musical profile, artistic muscle and, in short, an opera house, is the legacy of what James Levine built throughout his decades of work here.
Therefore, whenever people start discussing Levine, the Met, Levine's future, the Met's future, whenever they mention -- jokingly, one hopes -- names like Gergiev, or float long-shot ideas like the otherwise excellent Pappano, well, people need to keep in mind that they're talking about the house that -- musically -- Jimmy built.
Having said this, only a couple days ago, when James Levine was forced to cancel his appearance with the BSO for the Opening Night Gala of Carnegie Hall's 119th season due to his back troubles, Opera Chic could only have dreamed of such a serendipitous replacement -- Daniele Gatti saved the night.
The Milanese maestro, former MD of Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, current Big Cheese -- well, Grand Fromage -- over at Orchestre National de France and newly-appointed chief of Zurich Opera (he begins his tenure next January with Elektra) accepted on such short notice to lead the BSO in the Carnegie Hall in the season opener.
And he whipped up the kind of frenzied, astonishing performance of Debussy's La Mer (by far the highlight of the night) that was worth the ticket by itself, one of those interpretations that really shake your own ideas about a piece -- Gatti led the BSO with such authority that one could imagine even the aloof ghost of good old grouchy Chuck Munch having to admit to himself that yes, the funny-looking Italian with the Nehru jacket and the big bald spot shimmering under the klieg lights has got what it takes.
Were you there? Because if you weren't -- OC was there -- you missed out on one of those nights.
You know, those nights. When a score is illuminated in the light of a new interpretation by a special maestro, and the sound of a special orchestra. You know, one was reminded of young Celibidache in Berlin, 1948, and the way he set the sea on fire that time -- young Sergiu's Debussy was not a composer for watercolorists, and Gatti's, last night, wasn't really either.
Opera Chic's been lucky to catch Gatti in Europe, his thunderous and drama-heavy and unlucky Scala Don Carlo and his sublime Aida in Munich, both misunderstood masterpieces exiting to disgruntled, booing audiences.
Luckily the New York City audiences understood what they were being treated to last night, setting forth hearty and enthusiastic rounds of standing ovations during the Thursday, October 1, 2009 season opener at Carnegie Hall's Isaac Stern Auditorium. James Levine, MD of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, had originally chosen for his orchestra Berlioz's Le Carnaval romain, Opus 9 to open the evening. Under Gatti's watch, Berlioz got shafted, and Beethoven's Coriolan Overture took the slot. Gatti effectively shaped the BSO with gorgeous, spacious shades of Beethoven at his finest, grand and majestic, a dignified rendering that weighed down on the hall in dark washes of moody color.
Then Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin wobbled his afro on stage in a bid with Gatti for worst hair of the evening (even with Kissin's un-tame 'fro, we think Gatti's grown-out bowl cut with massive, fried-egg sized bald spot takes the prize). Well matched, Kissin and Gatti banged out a stunning, brilliant Chopin Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, and served more as a showcase for Kissin's known perfection and light melodies. The first movement, Maestoso, was a balls to the wall, unapologetic slam with shades of classic, your-grandmother's Beethoven still infecting the strings. Deafening, thunderous layers blossomed, larghetto started as a whisper and both Gatti and the BSO showed great expertise of tension that was swept-up into an almost nonexistent transition into the third movement, Allegro vivace.
Kissin fully explored every shade and shadow of the keyboard, perfect technique and stunning fingering. Astute and rippling, delicate and poetic, which earned him a standing ovation. We've heard Kissin in Milan, and were on hand when he played TWELVE encores at the humble Conservatorio. Last night, his two encores, which he whipped out between standing ovations, were Liszt’s Soirees de Vienne: Valses caprices d'apres Schubert and Chopin's Minute Waltz.
After the intermission, the New York premiere of John Williams's On Willows and Birches, the 15-minute Concerto for Harp was mastered by Ann Hobson Pilot, recently-retired principal for the BSO, who worked closely with Williams and asked him to undertake the concerto to which the American composer obliged. Two movements made easy work for Pilot's expertise, a very Williams-esque concerto that referenced many of his expected themes and musical expositions. The first movement "On Willows" was a short, dreamy, and understated calm which set the mood for the overall work. The second movement "On Birches" was a controlled explosion of sound, very visual and complex. Overall a sweet work played by a sweet soloist.
Claude Debussy's La Mer ended the evening on a thundering, almost deafening at times workout of muscle and brawn, stripped of the usual pretension -- no blurry colors, no confused mists: Gatti's sea is always stormy, and even in stillness, carries the memory of that power right under the surface. It's a "Mer" for extreme sports, for near-suicidal surfers.
Gatti led it from memory, taking us for a deeply unsettling cruise -- a terrifying tumult through La Mer's radical landscapes -- Turner himself, cranky and half-blind, couldn't have been prouder. The first sketch, the morning on the sea, was deafening, with Merciless Gatti squeezing exact control over each dynamic, while the second sketch, the play of the waves, was strident and utterly serious -- Gatti's sea is not bashful about being all-powerful. The third sketch, the dialog of wind and sea, was a crashing wave of tremendous sound, tho Gatti still imparted an underlying sweetness to the melodies. He leeched the work of any familiar, oh-so-polite colors, and wrapped it in a dignified and serious reading.
It's Gatti's strength as a conductor, he's not worried of being disrespectful to one's deeply set ideas about a score -- he takes you by hand, and shows you what's there also, besides what you think it's there. He sheds light on nooks and crannies you didn't think were there. It's the textbook definition of an exciting conductor, by the way.
This Debussy was not for the faint of heart, and unwavering and unapologetic orgy of notes.
And Maestro Gatti, the mensch, who donated his hefty and generous fee for last night's performance to the BSO in honor of Levine.
Lucky for NYers, Gatti is in town to wrap his special grace around Verdi's Aida, which opens tonight at the Metropolitan Opera (OC will be there and you won't).