Fate brought James Levine, the Boston Symphony, and me together in July of 2005. It was my first summer at Tanglewood (as a high-school BUTI fellow) and Levine's first summer as music director of the Tanglewood Institute. I was a high-school saxophonist with hardly any knowledge of the orchestral repertoire. He was, well, James Levine. It wasn't exactly a Patrick Swayze movie, but that summer marked my first full exposure to the greatness of classical music and created an addiction which exists to this day. James Levine, though not entirely responsible, played a heavy role.
An opening night, rain-soaked but titanic Mahler's Eighth, my first exposure to “real” Mahler (I had a CD of the First Symphony); a stupendous Brahms cycle, still the best performance of the symphonies I have ever heard (my first live Brahms--it may be my nostalgia speaking, but who cares?); a Wuorinen piano concerto during which I read the just-released sixth Harry Potter because I hated atonal music; a raucous pairing of Varese's Amerique and Gershwin's An American in Paris.
I was in no position to judge the quality of concerts, but my friends were. Eager to learn, I began picking up on what to listen to in a performance. I noticed the way in which the Boston players sagged slightly behind Levine's beat, a heart-skip which allowed even his most minute gestures to register powerfully in the orchestra. I noticed those minute gestures, sometimes just a slight turn of a hand which created a tremendous wave of sound.
I bought my very first score, Mahler's Eighth, to read during performance. To prepare for Levine's Brahms cycle, I purchased the last copy of the symphonies available at the festival gift shop (how great is it that a music festival gift shop carried scores?), which I flaunted proudly. A friend offered me $200 for it the night of Brahms' Third and Second; I turned him down. I managed to snag an empty seat towards the front of the theater, enthralled by being merely feet away from the sweaty maestro.
I returned the next summer having spent the year immersing myself in the classical tradition, loaded with scores and knowledge, though still puzzled by Arnold Schoenberg, with whose Chamber Symphony Levine boldly opened the season. I was even prepared to criticize Levine for a dramatically-lifeless Beethoven Ninth! But there was his radiant Jupiter Symphony, his searing Mozart Requiem, the Elektra and Don Giovanni which bored me just a little bit.
I will always, always, always regret missing the Histoire du Soldat he conducted at Tanglewood on Parade with the mind-boggling trio of Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, and John Harbison narrating. And I will always remember the time when Jimmy, on a blistering hot Sunday afternoon, returned from intermission wearing a purple polo shirt and led the orchestra in a blazing rendition of, well, something awesome.
What is important is to be your own Master
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