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On playing pieces for the last time

0 Robert Levine

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.

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