Music Review: James Levine Returns to the Podium at Carnegie Hall

May 20th, 2013

Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

James Levine conducted the Met Orchestra on Sunday.

Against all odds, James Levine is back.

On Sunday afternoon Mr. Levine, one of the greatest living American conductors and a musician who has defined the Metropolitan Opera for more than 40 years, cruised onto the stage of Carnegie Hall in a motorized wheelchair and conducted the Met Orchestra in a substantial program, his first performance anywhere in more than two years. The audience, which packed the house, stood almost in sync to give him a hearty welcoming ovation.

The podium area was enclosed on three sides with painted wood panels that fit the design of Carnegie Hall interiors. Behind the panels, a rising platform lifted his chair. His entrance was choreographed so that after facing the audience, blowing kisses and waving his hands, Mr. Levine was able to turn his chair around and get to work in just over a minute. Then he led a serene, poised and glowing account of the Prelude to Act I of Wagner’s “Lohengrin.”

So he really is back. This was Mr. Levine at his best. There are still big questions hovering over the Met about whether he can fulfill the duties of music director, which remains his title. But this was a day to celebrate his return and bask in his musical glory.

After years of spinal problems, shoulder injuries and multiple operations, it seemed very possible that Mr. Levine might never return to performing. In a recent interview with the mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne on WQXR radio, Mr. Levine, reflecting on his health troubles, said his lowest point came in August 2011, when during a vacation he fell and incurred another serious back injury. “A year ago,” he said, “I couldn’t really move my legs, and a few months before that I couldn’t feel anything in them.” It took him quite a while, he added, to even think of whether he would conduct again.

Many New Yorkers were asking the same question, but the audience seemed riveted by Mr. Levine’s performance, a watershed moment in New York’s musical life this year.

On this afternoon, he came across as a conductor with something to prove. Wagner has long been a Levine specialty, and there could not have been a more revealing work to open this momentous performance than the Prelude to “Lohengrin.”

He looked physically up to the task. He showed flexibility in his upper body, as he has described in recent interviews. He seemed comfortable waving his arms and giving emphatic cues. Mr. Levine was actually bouncing around on the chair, smiling at the musicians, sometimes singing the music audibly and looking altogether unrestrained.

After the Wagner, as he tried to turn his chair around to face the audience, Mr. Levine seemed to have some trouble with controlling it. A cellist and a violinist from the orchestra, looking concerned, got up to help him. But he managed, and rotated the chair fully around. Still, this little hitch suggested how unusual it is for a conductor to have to work out such matters.

He stayed in place as a piano was rolled out — conductors normally head for the wings — and the stage was set up for the next work, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, with the Russian virtuoso Evgeny Kissin as soloist.

Mr. Kissin, who hails from a Russian Romantic heritage, has a different musical orientation from Mr. Levine, a direct, no-nonsense interpreter with a keen intellectual understanding of music. Yet Mr. Levine has great feeling for the authenticity of national traditions and is clearly in awe of Mr. Kissin’s artistry.

On Sunday Mr. Kissin’s playing was elegant, impeccable and beautifully colored. Now and then he took rhythmic liberties, as is his way, stretching phrases for expressive effect. But Mr. Levine was there to support and, in a way, caress Mr. Kissin’s playing. And the structural rigor and rhythmic bite of Mr. Kissin’s performance had to have come, at least in part, from Mr. Levine’s example.

The second half was devoted to Schubert’s magisterial Ninth Symphony. This piece was the major work that Mr. Levine conducted on his New York Philharmonic debut program in 1972. Reviewing that performance, the New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg said that Mr. Levine came out “short, pudgy, behaired, exuding confidence” and “showed that the confidence was not misplaced.” He concluded that Mr. Levine is “a young conductor with a great deal of skill and sensitivity and there is no reason he should not develop into one of the majors.” Talk about an astute prediction.

Mr. Levine excelled in this demanding Schubert work. The performance lasted about 50 minutes and, if anything, his energy increased as it went on. The first movement was grand and stately and exciting. Here was a Schubert Ninth without a real slow movement because Mr. Levine set a walking, almost urgent tempo in the Andante and held it. The scherzo was at once buoyant and incisive. And the finale, which can seem repetitive, was thrilling, played with momentum and restlessness, yet without any loss of grandeur, clarity and musical architecture.

Mr. Levine’s return was a triumph. Where this leaves the Met, though, is still not clear. He is scheduled to conduct extensive runs of three operas next season, which is a lot more demanding than one of the orchestra’s thrice-yearly concerts at Carnegie Hall.

But you have to admire the pluck and determination he has shown in this remarkable comeback.

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