On playing pieces for the last time

One of the oddities of an orchestral career is the lack of control that we have over what we play. A consequencesof that odd fact is that, towards the end of a career, it’s possible to state with some certainty that one will have played a work for the last time.

I’ve been musing on that insight more and more. Last week was a perfect example – an all-Strauss program conducted by our music director consisting of Metamorphosen, the oboe concerto, and Don Quixote. I’ve only played Metamorphosen once before; in 2008, also with our current music director, Edo de Waart, who is rightly known as a Strauss expert. Likewise with the oboe concerto, except the last time was in 1981 or 1982 with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and then-principal oboe Richard Killmer (who was the teacher of my current orchestra’s principal oboe (and Strauss soloist) Katie Young). Don Quixote comes around more often than that; in my 27 seasons in Milwaukee, we’ve done it four times. But a frequency of once every seven years suggests strongly that I won’t be doing the solo part next time it’s done here.

Fortunately, it was a wonderful concert, with lots of great solos for the principal violist, so it was a satisfying farewell to three pieces I’ve come to like. When I was young and stupid, I didn’t much like Strauss. I wouldn’t say he’s at the very top of my list even now, but my opinion of his music is far higher than it was. No doubt doing lots of Strauss under a conductor that understands that Strauss is as much about flow as it is about lovely sounds has helped.

What’s even stranger, though, is to realize that I’ve probably done lots of works for the last time without being aware of it. In fact, there are not a lot of pieces I can count on doing again as a professional. Most of the Beethoven symphonies, of course, and the Brahms symphonies, and the last three Tchaikowsky symphonies are pretty sure bets for me to see again. Some Mozart, a few concerti, and the standard overtures are a pretty sure bet as well. But a great deal of standard repertoire like, for example, the Dvorak 8th symphony, doesn’t come around very often. Some I won’t mind never having to play again; life is hard enough without grappling with the viola solo in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. But there’s tons of music I’d love to play again – but won’t.

On the other hand, I’m guaranteed to experience such masterworks as Saber Dance many, many more times. Very likely I’ll have a few more long evenings with Messiah, and lots of Marvin Hamlisch arrangements, and more being frog-marched through Stars and Stripes Forever than I care to contemplate.

There’s an old joke about a guy in a bar who is overheard complaining about his job cleaning up after the circus elephants as they parade through the town of the day. Finally the barkeep suggests that he could find a a job with less mess and stress, to which the guy responds: “What?! And leave show business?”

I wonder if he ever thought that someday he’d sweep up his last pile of elephant poop.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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