Last night was another shortened rehearsal for Oedipus Rex, as we took less than 50 minutes to run through all of our parts with Maestro James Levine (hereafter referred to affectionately as “Jimmy,” as most of us do).
Almost every other conductor we’ve sung for wants very hands-on experience directing the chorus and gives us very specific direction. It’s usually welcomed, but it also sort of reminds me sadly of the classic office situation where executives approving something just have to make a few changes to make it feel like it’s theirs and to reassert their authority. (I do it too, unconsciously, when I’m approving something for someone else… “In this copy, what if we change this word, and split this into two paragraphs…”). Most conductors insist on these minor adjustments, sometimes inspired, sometimes shrug-inducing, that satisfy some particular quirk of theirs but may or may not make the piece better.
It’s been a long time since I’ve sung for Jimmy, given his physical ailments that have kept him away from the podium for a few years. But one thing hasn’t changed. Jimmy is not a hands-on conductor during the piano rehearsal. He’s there to watch and listen. He lets John Oliver conduct us, and occasionally — I’d even say, rarely — interrupts to give us some sort of direction.
It is painfully easy to watch Jimmy during moments like these and conjure up the image of a special needs kid trying to keep up. He is partially transfixed by the music, sometimes singing along with solo parts in an off-key warbling baritone, often rocking back and forth and constantly shifting position (to the point where I wonder if he has Parkinson’s), and always with a child-like smile on his face. But it would be a mistake. When he does give advice, it’s so quickly clear that he’s hearing about 50 more things than you or I will ever hear in the music. Like when he slipped into a lecture about how it’s necessary to bring out the tension between the vocal harmonics and the sostenuto (the sustained, repeated timpani notes, which often is the only accompaniment.)
And yet, even with such limited involvement, we know he is capable of generating the most amazing concert performances. Everyone gushed about how “transcendent” his Mahler’s 2nd performance was last October. We saw a glimpse of this when he suddenly took over for John in the last part, reminding us of how to treat the final Vale, vale Oedipus. He reminded us that since “the end of each phrase as written is so sad,” the character of the ending should be “the saddest thing you’ve ever heard. We did it again, suddenly evoking a gentle pity that we found from ourselves more easily from the slower tempo he dictated and his (very brief!) hand movements as he led us through it. Wow. It will leave the audience breathless, that ending.
One funny moment: We were asking Jimmy about the character of the happy-go-lucky section which is at odds with the somber nature of the scene (blood gushing from Oedipus’s eyes after he pokes them out with the brooch from his hanged wife… not something you expect circus music from.) Jimmy called it the “Tarantella from Hell,” and made an off-hand remark (I didn’t quite hear it) comparing it to all the Pops music we’d been singing this Christmas. John took it a step further, pointing out how it was banal, cheap music for the mob — the spectacle for the masses — the stuff everyone wants to hear. “You’re familiar with that by now, right? Singing for the masses?” Having each come off 7+ holiday pops performances… yes, we knew what he meant!