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Monday, May 20, 2013

Concert Review: The Comeback

James Levine conducts the MET Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Metropolitan Opera Music Director James Levine leads the MET Orchestra
at Carnegie Hall in a concert on Sunday, May 19, 2013.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
The roar was deafening.

James Levine, music director of the Metropolitan Opera, returned to conducting on Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall. As the maestro's motorized wheelchair rolled into Stern Auditorium, the capacity crowd stood up and cheered. It has been two years since Mr. Levine conducted his last performance with the Met, two years of cancellations, painful rehabilitation and uncertainty for the conductor and the opera company.

Mr. Levine is currently using the wheelchair following a slew of health problems. He has battled cancer, shoulder injuries, and back problems necessitating painful surgery. In 2011, a fall suffered on Labor Day weekend caused a major setback and the cancellation of all of his podium appearances for that season. He also suffers from Parkinson's-like symptoms, an apparent after-effect of all these recent medical procedures. He wasn't on the Met schedule (except for this performance) this season, although he has retained the title of Music Director. For this concert, he conducted from a special motorized platform, designed and built by the ever-resourceful Met stage crew.

Much of that uncertainty dissipated with the Prelude to Wagner's Lohengrin. This ethereal tone poem depicts the descent of the Holy Grail from the heavens with ethereal violins and surging brass. Its slow pace and measured crescendo requires masterful control from the conductor. Just a few bars reminded the listener what Mr. Levine brings to the music of Wagner, a quality of total artistic commitment that engulfs and enthralls. The magic was indeed back.

Following this ten-minute prelude was no easy task. So Mr. Levine chose Beethoven, or more specifically the Fourth Piano Concerto with soloist (and longtime concert collaborator) Evgeny Kissin. The sight and sound of watching these two artists collaborate had the refreshing effect of stripping away all the drama and baggage of the past two years. Mr. Levine's business is making music, and it was a welcome return to business as usual.

The expansive first movement opened with a slow ruminative passage for the solo piano, answered by the same notes in the strings. As the thematic material developed, Mr. Levine showed that he had not lost his ability with orchestral music, helped by the taut precision of his orchestra. Mr. Kissin played with quicksilver speed, racing through Beethoven's light-hearted arpeggios and the movement's extended final cadenza with a precision and speed as if challenging Mr. Levine to keep pace. Mr. Levine did.

The central slow movement was played with hushed delicacy, with some of the same grace and beauty that marked the earlier Wagner. The finale charged forward with timpani and trumpets, an energetic set of variations played with gusto by conductor and orchestra. Following the applause and Mr. Levine's exit, Mr. Kissin took a high-speed encore: Beethoven's Rondo alla ingharese quasi un capriccio, the dubbed "Rage over a Lost Penny."

The second half of the concert belonged solely to Mr. Levine. He chose Schubert's Ninth Symphony, a glorious expanse of sound that anticipates the later orchestral ideas of Wagner and Bruckner. Schubert takes a deceptively simple horn-call and uses it as the foundation of a massive structure of sound. Mr. Levine proved himself equal to each of the four movements, showing the close connection between conductor and orchestra as the players responded to his slightest gesture. That sense of power and artistic certainty grew over the two central movements, a steady Andante and a bustling Scherzo that  each movement, climaxing in the muscular Allegro.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.