The Making Of An Ensemble

One evening in 1988, Raymond Gniewek took time off from his job and got a ticket to Debussy's "Pelleas and Melisande" at the Metropolitan Opera. "I was floored," he says. "I was transfixed. I couldn't believe the colors, the sound, being washed over with waves of water, the breeze." Gniewek is the Met's concertmaster; at "Pelleas" he was, for a change, on the outside listening in. That night, he realized what he had previously only suspected: the Met orchestra, led by James Levine, had turned into a superb, world-class ensemble. "When I step back," says Gniewek, who joined the company in 1957, "I'm flabbergasted."

This week the Met celebrates the 25th anniversary of its new house at Lincoln Center in New York City. Though opening night-three acts of three different operas-will feature about half the stars who can still draw breath, there will inevitably be moaning about the dearth of great voices. The moaners should do as Gniewek did: step back and listen to the orchestra. It plays with astonishing precision, nuance and insight, illuminating the filigree of Debussy as well as the starkness of Schoenberg. Fifteen years ago that orchestra was little more than adequate: it gave some fine performances (usually Verdi) and some dismal ones (usually Mozart). To hear it was largely to ignore it. But since Levine took over as music director in 1976, the orchestra has gradually turned from a plain-if not ugly-duckling into a swan.

How did it happen? How did a good but workaday ensemble become one that Gramophone magazine-the holy writ of classical-record buyers-recently compared to that Olympian group, the Vienna Philharmonic? For 30 years the Met made virtually no records; now it has contracts with two giants, Deutsche Grammophon and Sony Classical. And it is moving beyond the opera repertory: next year it will solo on DG with Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" and Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition." It tried its wings as an instrumental group on a successful three-city concert tour last spring; another is in the works.

Until Levine signed on, the Met didn't even have a music director-it was led by a series of guest conductors. "We were desperadoes, dead-end kids," says cellist Jascha Silberstein. Morale was bad, self-esteem low. Levine came on as a one-man rooting section with a positive attitude that could shame Norman Vincent Peale. "I can't relate much to sardonic criticism," he says. "For me it's a question of individual artists doing the very best they can. I wanted to make the orchestra collectively confident about its own instincts." From the outset, he patiently stroked the ensemble. "He cajoles, he compliments, he works in subtle ways," says violinist Toni Rapport. "He's never destructive." The maestro's loquacity ("he talks too f-ing much," grumbles one player) and enthusiasm can annoy some musicians ("We refer to the F word: fabulous"), but they admit the results prove Levine right.

Working from the theory that the only way to reach a high level of music-making is through "immersion and development, maintaining and nurturing," Levine immediately devoted unheard-of amounts of time to the orchestra. But it cost him. Press and orchestra alike complained that he was hogging the repertoire and not hiring enough good guest conductors. Even his manager told him to cut back. Levine (who always maintained that he tried to get more fine guest conductors but they wouldn't come) held firm: "If you work with the same people in continuity, you develop something you can't any other way."

Levine works endlessly on technique and details. "He's a tireless taskmaster," says trumpeter Mark Gould. "He trains to balance, to play together-things other conductors would find tedious. " During breaks small groups often work together on phrasing or a tricky passage. "The attitude is not, as it once was, 'This is the break and I'm not giving up three seconds'," says Rapport. Levine, a brilliant pianist who plays chamber works with some orchestra members, gets intimate performances from the large ensemble. "We listen to each other like chamber-music players," says cellist Leshek Zavistovski.

Because the orchestra now requires musicians to play only four performances a week, and has one of the highest base salaries of any American orchestra, it attracts fine players (since 1986, for instance, three have come from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra). Its audition system ensures that there will be no favoritism. Even the finals are conducted behind screens and Levine is only one of 13 voters. The Met is interested in orchestral blend, not flamboyance. "This orchestra gets along fantastically well," says oboist John Ferrillo. "The one who wins maybe isn't the best player, but the one who fits in."

The orchestra still bemoans the absence of fine guest conductors. The great Carlos Kleiber was finally lured to the Met in 1988-he loves the orchestra-and has since conducted four operas. If the demanding Kleiber will come, surely others may follow. Since Kleiber, some orchestra members say, Levine himself has become a much better conductor. "He's more transparent, more refined, not afraid of pianissimo any more," says one. "He was at every performance and every rehearsal of Kleiber's," says another. "He's very secure now but more daring." The orchestra is, of course, Levine's. "If you put Jesus Christ on the podium, some musicians would still be disenchanted," says concertmaster Gniewek. "They say it was great to play with Herbert von Karajan. I say, it's like going out with a beautiful woman for six dates, but would you want to be married to her? We're married to Jimmy. Morning after morning, there's no one we'd rather face."