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

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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