Following Two Year Absence, Levine Poised to Raise Baton
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All ears will be cocked to Carnegie Hall on May 19, when James Levine returns to the podium after a two year absence from conducting.
Levine, who has been recuperating from a series of medical debacles, will conduct the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the ensemble he has been synonymous with for decades, in a symphonic program of pieces from the core 19th-century Germanic repertoire. The performance will include the prelude to the first act of Wagner’s Lohengrin, Beethoven’s 4th piano concerto, and Schubert’s 9th symphony.
While Mr. Levine’s doctors praised his “dramatic recovery,” crediting it to “remarkable perseverance and hard work,” the maestro is not yet well enough to walk unaided, and he will conduct at Carnegie Hall while seated in a motorized wheelchair. To accommodate this, the Met reports that its technical department has designed special “elevating podiums” that will be put to use both at Carnegie Hall and in the orchestra pit at the Met.
The 69-year old conductor’s return to the stage evokes memories of pianist Vladimir Horowitz’s famous comeback at Carnegie Hall, nearly 50 years ago. After a performance on February 25, 1953, the famously temperamental Russian virtuoso went on an unannounced hiatus from performance that lasted 12 years. When he returned to the stage at Carnegie Hall for a concert on May 9, 1965, it was front-page news. Crowds lined up around the block for tickets. Horowitz’s recital was recorded by Columbia Records, which produced a double-LP of the performance that is still in print today via compact disc.
By contrast, there are no plans to record Mr. Levine’s return performance, according to a Carnegie Hall spokesman, although the program will be broadcast on satellite radio. The concert is already sold out, and a similarly “enthusiastic crowd response” is expected.
While Mr. Levine has been away from the podium only since 2011, his absence has been widely felt. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, which Mr. Levine led for seven years, is still looking for a permanent music director to replace him. Without Mr. Levine’s leadership at the Metropolitan Opera, the house has arguably lacked a counterbalance to its General Manager, Peter Gelb, who has put on a discordant Las Vegas-themed Rigoletto and Robert Lepage’s boondoggle of a Ring cycle. To Mr. Gelb’s credit, some other new productions have been qualified successes.
While it remains to be seen whether Mr. Levine’s return will put the Met back on course for the long term, his reappearance in the orchestra pit is surely welcome. He returns to the Met on September 24, with the first performance of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, and he will also conduct Verdi’s Falstaff in a new production, along with Berg’s Wozzeck, in the 2013-14 season.
Mr. Levine has been suffering from an array of medical problems over the past several years. Since 1994, he has displayed symptoms of a benign form of Parkinson’s disease, causing a hand tremor, among other problems. In 2006 he tripped and fell while onstage with the Boston Symphony Orchestra after a performance of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony. He later had a kidney removed, along with several other operations on his back. His condition worsened when he fell again, badly injuring his spine, while vacationing at Vermont in August of 2011.
In the period leading up to his two-year break from conducting, uncertainties over Levine’s health often led to last-minute cancellations, disappointing audiences and forcing the Met Orchestra and Boston Symphony to scramble to find replacement conductors on short notice. He last conducted at Carnegie Hall on April 10, 2011 and at the Met on May 14 of that year.
The centerpiece of the May 19 program will be Franz Schubert’s 9th symphony, a work completed in 1828, the same year the composer died at 31. The symphony, nearly an hour in duration, will occupy the entire second half of the concert. And while no full-price tickets remain among the hall’s 2,804 seats, a limited number of same-day rush tickets will be made available to the public for $10 beginning when the box office opens at noon.