Review: James Levine, Wheelchair-Bound, Returns from 2-Year Absence

AUDIO: Finale of Schubert's Ninth Symphony, performed by the Met Orchestra and Levine

Monday, May 20, 2013 - 09:48 AM

When James Levine conducted the Metropolitan Opera's matinee of Die Walküre on May 14, 2011, I was in the audience, hoping mightily that it would not be the last performance of his I'd see. Fortunately, after two years of recovery from medical problems, Levine made his comeback Sunday with the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, and once again, I was grateful to be there.

The music-making was glorious. Levine was in command, with sweeping arms and firm gestures. The Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin, with its shimmering opening, followed by "full frontal Wagner," and then back to the shimmer, was the perfect opening to showcase the orchestra.  Next came a masterful interpretation of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4, with soloist Evgeny Kissin – a longtime musical partner of Levine's. And after intermission, a rendition of Schubert's Ninth Symphony that was striking for its energy, with strong string unisons, subtle countermelodies and lyric solo lines (listen to the final moments above).

Until Levine regains full use of his legs, he is getting around in a motorized wheelchair. That's how he made his entrance through the orchestra, heading for a podium that can accommodate the chair, and be raised and lowered by stagehands once the conductor is in place.  Wainscotted wooden panels surrounded the podium to shield the engineering mechanics. 

Logistical mechanics, however, were harder to shield. The assistive technology – or perhaps lack of familiarity with it – made for some awkwardness in stage protocol. Levine could not get off the podium until stagehands came to lower it, so he wound up taking fewer bows than usual, all from his chair. Kissin wound up taking more solo bows than usual, and returning to the stage for a joyously infuriated encore of Beethoven's Rage Over a Lost Penny, Op. 129.

Applause for the two-and-a-half hour concert was long and enthusiastic. (Among those in the crowd: Operavore's own Marilyn Horne, violinist Itzhak Perlman, Juilliard School President Joseph Polisi, Met general manager Peter Gelb ... and seemingly every music critic with a 100 mile radius.) Levine acknowledged the applause with clear emotion and affection, at one point even raising his arms to make "I'm getting my strength back" muscles. Hopefully, that will soon apply to his legs, too, so that he is able to walk out onstage, step up onto the podium, and do what he does so well.

Weigh in: Were you at the concert or did you listen online? How did Levine seem to you? Leave your comments below.

Recording courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera


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Comments [6]


I enjoy Classics for Kids on Saturday mornings. I guess I'm just a big kid at heart even though I am 64 years old. I am a grad of Music & Art High School in NYC. But Naomi, when you are doing your regular radio show please talk to us like adults. You tend to talk to your regular radio audience like we were 10 years old.

May. 25 2013 10:10 PM
Leslie Kane from New York City

I was one of the fortunate ones to attend the concert at Carnegie Hall on Sunday together with my mother and my husband. As a music lover and an occupational therapist, I found the experience profoundly moving. It was an enormous pleasure to finally watch James Levine in action, after such a long and difficult hiatus, in his natural habitat. The Met Orchestra, a great favorite of ours, sounded amazing. The Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin moved me to tears, and I daresay I wasn't alone. Kissin, as always, was brilliant. I will never forget the way Maestro Levine looked out to the audience, acknowledging the outpouring of love. We are so grateful to have been there in person. We wish Maestro Levine all the best and we're so happy he's back!

May. 21 2013 08:28 PM
Andrew B. from Lower Merion, PA

The Met Orchestra's Carnegie performances, Levine's thus-far inconsistent stint in Boston, and the Maestro's prior tenure in Chicago (which is often, if not entirely forgotten) prove that, as great as Levine is with Wagner, DaPonte librettos and Wozzeck, opera fans can't claim Maestro Levine for themselves.

Because there is so much competition in the orchestral repertory, it's easy to overlook that Levine has made critically acclaimed recordings of the symphonies of Brahms, Schumann, Mahler, and Mozart, not to mention Holst's Planets, Ma Vlast, and a host of concerti with the world's most acclaimed soloists. Did I mention Levine's discography at the keyboard?

Opera fans pile in and drive the hype, but let's not forget that Levine's return benefits all music and musicians.

May. 20 2013 10:30 PM
Burton Spielman from Madison, NJ

We attended Sunday afternoon's concert. It was everything we had hoped it would be and more. Your description of the performances is dead on; the only thing you missed was the electrifying moment when Levine first appeared to come on stage. The audience rose in unison, with thunderous cheers. For those of us who obviously could not listen to the live stream, will WQXR be rebroadcasting the concert?

May. 20 2013 10:02 PM
Helen Wynn from Honolulu, HI

I listened via Sirius on my phone at 9 a.m. in Honolulu. Absolutely everything that I could have hoped for in the Lohengrin, Beethoven and Schubert. Well this should answer all the critics, I thought. Told husband afterwards that James Levine was BACK. Got a little nervous on hearing that he was motoring around the stage. Please don't fall off, I prayed. So good was the concert that I listened to it again in the afternoon. Bravo.

May. 20 2013 05:09 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Like the affirmation of the rising to the occasion as the PHOENIX from the ashes of mythology, our champion of music JAMES LEVINE returned with a program to endear him to his adoring fans. WELCOME BACK MAESTRO LEVINE !!!

May. 20 2013 03:25 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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