In contrast with my usual last-minute habits, I bought a ticket for this afternoon's concert over a month in advance, eager to have a chance to see the Metropolitan Opera orchestra fully in the spotlight. I was not disappointed. The first and second halves were a study in contrasts: Mozart's Posthorn Serenade (officially Serenade in D minor, K. 320) was a graceful celebration of an ordered world. Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, in a blisteringly intense performance, extolled the courage to live fully in the face of the temptation to live blindly, in a world teetering wildly on the brink of chaos.
I hadn't heard James Levine conduct since the Rheingold gala, and I was looking forward to hearing again the special magic that he can work with "his" orchestra. Physically, he seemed much diminished (he walked with a cane, which the concertmaster held for him when he climbed to a swivel chair on the podium) but he burned with musical energy. The friend I went with said that the Mozart compensated her for years of mediocre orchestral performances. The strings were radiant and rich, the woodwinds virtuosic. One of the French horns experienced some sort of glitch, but that external factor was only a brief distraction. Each movement was given distinct character, with unhurried pauses separating them. As a whole, the piece had an appropriately dignified but festive (feierlich) mood, with verve in the variations of tempi and dynamics. After this delightful and reassuring piece from the Age of Reason, my friend and I spent the interval stretching our cramped legs (really, those seats!) and trying to mentally prepare for Mahler.
The Lied was fortunate in its soloists. Michelle DeYoung not only sang with warmth and power, but gets high marks from the Wardrobe Committee for a teal blue dress in a rich fabric and simple cut that suited her coloring and figure admirably. (It's worth looking at her online schedule not just to see if you can catch her in a city near you, but to chuckle at the whimsical headers given to each event on the calendar.) She maintained admirable lyricism, and had a lovely rounded tone for that last "ewig... ewig... ewig..." Simon O'Neill sang with bright tone and, in "Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde" an almost savage attack, although he also found a more meditative tone for "Der Trunkene im Frühling." The German diction of both was generally good. (The Mahler Archives site has the Chinese texts alongside German, French, and English translations.) For me, however, it was the orchestra which really made this electrifying.
From the first notes, I was sitting straight in my seat, in a state of glorious suspense. The uncanny wildness of the piece was profoundly unsettling (and exciting.) As in the Mozart, there was plenty of breathing space in the pauses, but I didn't feel that the mood was broken. There were moments of sweetness and exquisite beauty, but I felt that the tension of the piece was kept resolutely unresolved until the very end. [Update: I forgot to discuss the tempi! Oops. Fortunately Zerbinetta noticed; see the comments section.] In ensemble and individual efforts the orchestra astonished me. When did they find time to rehearse this enough to put together a performance of this quality? The orchestral interlude was breathtaking; I was afraid Levine might snap his baton in his enthusiasm of gong-cuing, but it was glorious. And then... it did resolve (the idea, I mean; not the chord.) And the audience maintained a breathless silence until Levine dropped his baton, and then erupted.