Clash of the Titans

James Levine and His Met Orchestra Take Down the Stars

There's no getting around the fact. While previous "golden ages" at the Metropolitan Opera have existed (or have been hyped) because of star singers, the one that's happening now has nothing to do with them. The company's consistently glorious orchestra up-stages the onstage divos and divas night after night, and if that is anti-star rebellion, let's cheer those on the barricades. This isn't to say that about a couple of dozen leading singers on the present roster aren't worth hocking heirlooms to hear and see, but what makes steady attendance consistently worthwhile at the Met is the orchestra that chief conductor James Levine has been working at and polishing since he first joined the company 31 years ago as a twentysomething tyro. After a decade of flexing the orchestra's muscles with non-operatic concerts (three a year) at Carnegie Hall and touring to other cities, Levine now faces a band unequalled for glow, style, and technique by most others in the world and surpassed by none, not even the Philharmonics of Berlin and Vienna. It's true that the Met's early decades, nearly a century ago, boasted the presence of Gustav Mahler and Arturo Toscanini on the podium, but it's only in the last several years that the company's orchestra, whether in the pit or on the concert stage, has been the brightest jewel in the crown.

This spring offers, beside such a magnificent orchestral challenge in the home theater as Berg's Lulu, two full-scale concerts in Carnegie's main hall (Isaac Stern Auditorium) and two chamber-music sessions in Carnegie's little Weill Recital Hall. On May 5, Levine conducts Haydn's exultant oratorio The Creation, with soprano Hei-Kyung Hong, tenor Ian Bostridge, bass René Pape (all of them uniquely vivid) and the Met chorus (Raymond Hughes's world-class group). Expect a C-major sunburst at "And there was light." Two Sunday afternoons later, Levine conducts Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony, Ravel's Bolero, Richard Strauss's Burleske (Jean-Yves Thibaudet as the brave piano soloist), and the world premiere of William Bolcom's Seventh Symphony, which puts several instrumental soloists into theatrical conflict and alliance and whose upbeat aims don't preclude a lamentation interlude shadowed by last September. The chamber-music concerts offer all six of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos on March 10 and a Stravinsky collection, including the Wind Octet and the vaudeville Rénard, on April 28.



NEW YORK BAROQUE DANCE COMPANY
March 7-10
Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church, 131 East 10th Street, 674-8194

A 25th-anniversary Baroque Costume Ball.


ALARM WILL SOUND
March 8
Miller Theater, Columbia University, Broadway and 116th Street, 854-7799

That's the name of Alan Pierson's crackerjack ensemble, which now devotes a concert to the eminent and still provocative György Ligeti. On the bill are a chamber concerto, piano concerto, and the New York premiere of a horn concerto saluting the town of Hamburg.


EMERSON STRING QUARTET
March 17
Alice Tully Hall, Broadway and 65th Street, 721-6500

These presently unsurpassed players tackle all six of Bartók's published quartets in one nearly four-hour concert. When they did this feat for the composer's 1981 centennial, their musicianship, stamina, and cumulative energy left their audience gap-ing. There's no reason to believe they won't do it again.


THE PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA
March 19
Carnegie Hall, 154 West 57th Street, 247-7800

Simon Rattle, Europe's hottest conductor right now, guests with a program divided between Mahler's five-handkerchief Symphony No. 5 and HK Gruber's fun-porn Frankenstein!!!. Gruber, narrating his piece, is a hilarious combination of Peter Lorre and Danny Kaye.


'FALSTAFF'
March 21, 26, 30, April 3, 6, 9, 13, 17, and 20
Metropolitan Opera House, Columbus Avenue and 63rd Street, 362-6000

Verdi's miraculous comedy returns to the Met with James Levine conducting, Franco Zeffirelli freshening up his first and still best-by-far Met production (from 1964), and Bryn Terfel introducing New York to his hilarious yet heartbreaking performance of the fat knight.


'AGRIPPINA'
April 7, 11, 13, 17, 20, and 23
New York State Theater, Columbus Avenue and 63rd Street, 496-0600

Handel, at 24, wrote an emotionally wild, musically rich opera about ancient Rome's Agrippina-Poppea-Nero-Claudius mess. Jane Glover is the savvy conductor, and Brenda Harris, David Walker, and others provide the vocal finesse.


'MONTEVERDI CYCLE'
April 7-27
Brooklyn Academy of Music, Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, and Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-636-4100

The Brooklyn Academy of Music's annual spring opera series is devoted this year to Monteverdi's three extant 17th-century music-dramas—in other words, the beginning of the great operatic literature. William Christie conducts and Adrian Noble stages the recent Aix-en-Provence production of Il ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria, with virtue triumphant over vice, at the acoustically ideal Harvey Theater April 7, 8, 10, 11, 13, and 14. Christophe Rousset conducts and the innovative Pierre Audi directs the Dutch National Opera in L'incoronazione di Poppea, in which evil triumphs over demolished virtue, at the acoustically problematic Opera House April 16, 19, and 21. City Opera's Jane Glover conducts and Off-Broadway's Diane Paulus directs the young, lively Chicago Opera Theater in Orfeo at the Harvey Theater April 22, 24, 26, and 27.


'LULU'
April 12, 16, and 20
Metropolitan Opera House, Columbus Avenue and 63rd Street, 362-6000

Berg's powerhouse opera happens to be the 20th century's greatest, and the Met does it proud, especially thanks to James Levine conducting that amazing orchestra and the late John Dexter's near perfect production.


'WHEN MORTY MET JOHN . . . '
April 13 and 14
Weill Recital Hall, 154 West 57th Street, 247-7800
April 13
St. Paul's Chapel, Amsterdam Avenue and 117th Street, 247-7800

Carnegie Hall continues last year's mini-festival of music by two avant-garde friends, John Cage and Morton Feldman, no longer with us, and by composers they influenced. Feldman's huge but quietly serene Rothko Chapel, sung by George Steel's Vox Ensemble, highlights the St. Paul's concert. On the final program Joan La Barbara sings Feldman's Three Voices for soprano and tape.


THOMAS QUASTHOFF
April 26
Carnegie Hall, 154 West 57th Street, 247-7800

This baritone is unsurpassed today for vocal quality, stylistic know-how (from German baroque to American pop), and emotional precision. He sings two Bach cantatas with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Jeffrey Kahane. The non-vocal part of the evening offers Haydn and Ginastera.

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