Rising Star Helps the Met Turn a Page

Posted May 20, 2018 5:59 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra — which appeared at Carnegie Hall to patchy effect on Friday, led by the rising star Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla — has had a rough time lately.

James Levine, the conductor who created this ensemble as we know it during the past four decades, retired into an emeritus position in 2016 after years of health problems, his teeth gritted against the move. He was fired this March amid accusations of sexual abuse and harassment.

Three days later, he sued the company for breach of contract and defamation. On Friday, hours before the orchestra took the Carnegie stage for the first in its annual series of concerts after the opera season — a series Levine made possible — the Met countersued, ensuring that the cloud that has settled over its music-making will hover for some time yet.

In the meantime, Levine has been removed, not just from the Met but also from its history. “Our Story,” on its website, contains no mention of the man who led more than 2,500 of its performances. Ditto the Met’s Sirius XM satellite radio channel, which no longer broadcasts Levine-led operas. (They remain available on the company’s subscription service, Met Opera on Demand.)

This all must be uncomfortable, to say the least, for the members of the band Levine built. They will get some much-needed stability when Yannick Nézet-Séguin takes over as music director in the fall, two years ahead of schedule.

During the past season, they have seemed to bear the stress and uncertainty of the situation with assurance, sounding superb in modes as different as the weighty shine of “Parsifal” and the effervescent lilt of “Cendrillon.”

Without Levine, the opera season went fine, but the performance on Friday, less than a week after the final “Tosca” and “Roméo et Juliette,” did sound as if some of that stress and uncertainty had finally caught up with the ensemble. These Carnegie concerts — one-off programs featuring symphonic works that an opera orchestra hardly ever plays — were always predicated on the group’s close relationship with Levine, who was able efficiently to make it sound world-class in repertory largely foreign to it.

Taking the podium that was long his, Grazinyte-Tyla, making her debut with both this ensemble and at Carnegie, was a remarkable symbol of a company seeking to turn the page. She was scheduled to conduct even before Levine’s downfall, and women were not among his accusers, but the spectacle of a 31-year-old female conductor leading “his” orchestra nevertheless felt like a breath of fresh air. (It was unavoidable on another level not to think of new life while watching Grazinyte-Tyla, who is due to have a baby in August.)

Born in Lithuania in 1986, she has swiftly come to prominence over the past five years. After serving as an assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in 2016 she became the music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in England, a position that boosted the careers of Simon Rattle and Andris Nelsons. She conducts in generous, sweeping, full-arm gestures, charting broad arcs in the air. And she is a vibrant presence in front of an orchestra, rising to her toes at climaxes.

But Debussy’s “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune,” which opened the concert, felt opaque and awkward. While this is delicate, vibrating music, the orchestra was only really characterful when its strings summoned bronzed surges; the colors grayed as the textures lightened.

Shostakovich’s grim orchestration of Mussorgsky’s four-part “Songs and Dances of Death” had massed solidity here, but little grandeur. It is always a pleasure to hear the richly settled sound of the young mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili — starring at the Met next season in “Aida,” “Samson et Dalila” and “Adriana Lecouvreur” — but she, too, seemed content merely to sound good; there wasn’t sufficient bite in either singer or orchestra.

It’s hard to avoid having an effect in Tchaikovsky’s crowd-pleasing Fourth Symphony, and the playing in it was more confident. But aspects of Grazinyte-Tyla’s interpretation of this most overplayed of standards felt unpersuasive. Lingering tempos in the first movement and the pizzicato Scherzo didn’t create momentum or open space for newly discovered details. She and the orchestra were most memorable in a quietly poised, beautifully phrased encore for strings, “Svajone” (“Dream”), by the Lithuanian composer Juozas Naujalis.

Along with the 43-year-old Nézet-Séguin, a new generation of conductors is arriving at the Met. Next season includes opera debuts by artists like Gustavo Dudamel, James Gaffigan, Omer Meir Wellber, Henrik Nanasi and Cornelius Meister. (Yes, all men.) With the company’s orchestra seeking a future — and its footing — after Levine’s fall, this period may well prove crucial.

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Additional Information:

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra performs at Carnegie Hall on May 30 (under Gianandrea Noseda) and June 5 (Michael Tilson Thomas); 212-247-7800, carnegiehall.org.