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A Comeback Concert

by Jay Nordlinger

It was the big event of the New York music season. In fact, it was the big event of many seasons. James Levine conducted a concert in Carnegie Hall — which is no big deal, except that he hadn’t conducted in two years, and many thought he would never conduct again. The concert was a relief, among other things.

Levine is one of the great conductors of our age. Since the mid 1970s, he has been music chief at the Metropolitan Opera. In the first half of the 2000s, roughly speaking, he was chief at the Munich Philharmonic. In the second half of that decade, again roughly speaking, he was chief at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. For a long time, Levine was just about the hardest-working man in show business. But he was dogged by health problems.

He started to sit down to conduct in the late 1990s. It is not unknown for conductors to sit down; but usually they are well advanced in years, as Stokowski was, and Sawallisch was. Levine was in his 50s. Sometimes, he seemed sleepy and infirm. Other times, he was in fine fettle. I remember a concert in May 2007, which ended with Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony. In the final moments, Levine stood up. It was “startling,” I wrote in a review. “He looked like a giant, up on that podium.”

Discussions of Levine can sound like General Hospital, but I will keep it brief. At some point, tremors became apparent in his hands. “It’s Parkinson’s,” some people said. “No,” said others, “it’s just Parkinson’s-like.” Members of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra whispered that it was getting hard to follow the maestro’s beat.

Onstage in Boston, he took a bad fall. Years later, out of public view, he took another bad fall. In between, there was a string of surgeries, to correct a host of problems, some of them spinal. Levine has always been tight-lipped about his health. The negative view is that he’s secretive, even misleading. The positive view is that he’s private. In any case, he conducted a Wagner opera, Die Walküre, in May 2011 — and then disappeared, pretty much.

It was last October that the Met made an announcement: Levine would conduct a concert of the Met orchestra in Carnegie Hall on May 19. This was greeted with joy, but also with skepticism: Would the maestro really be able to show up? For himself, the maestro said, “I’m overwhelmingly happy to be coming back. It’s miraculous for me.”

In ensuing months, there were reports and rumors of what Levine was up to. “He went to the Met yesterday to listen to young singers.” “I heard he’s more or less paralyzed.” “He’s in such an elaborate wheelchair, there’s no way he’ll be able to conduct.” Many in the music biz said, “He should face reality and step down. He’s almost 70 anyway. He should swallow his pride and hand the reins to Luisi” — meaning Fabio Luisi, who has been the main conductor at the Met in Levine’s absence.

And yet, May 19 approached, and he had still not canceled. What would be the latest the Met could make an announcement? May 19 was a Sunday, and they would surely have to announce by the Friday before, right?

Carnegie Hall, on the appointed afternoon, was a madhouse. The place was packed to the gills, with more than the ordinary concert-going crowd. There were famous musicians, including Itzhak Perlman and Marilyn Horne. There were billionaires and socialites. There was musical press from all over. And, of course, there were ordinary concertgoers. What’s more, the Met would broadcast the concert over the radio.

On the stage was a strange-looking structure: short walls, where the podium should be. Would the walls serve as a kind of enclosure for a wheelchair? I turned to the critic sitting behind me and said, “I have no idea how this will go. It could be a triumph or a disaster. I simply can’t predict.” Neither could she.

After the orchestra tuned and the crowd hushed — or hushed as much as they ever do in this noisy city — all eyes turned to the door from which Levine would emerge. The moment was almost unbearable. What would we see? There was a somewhat similar moment in this hall on May 9, 1965. Vladimir Horowitz, the pianist, was returning to concert life after a twelve-year absence. The next day, a reporter wrote that Horowitz had returned “to a triumphant ‘second debut’ before a distinguished audience that included many of the foremost musicians in the world.”

Out came Levine, in a motorized wheelchair, followed by two men, who would assist him when he got to the front of the orchestra. Within the short walls was a podium designed by the Met’s technical department (or so we would learn in coming days). It goes up and down. Up went Levine. Up went the audience too, giving him a prolonged ovation. Levine grinned, beamed, and waved.

We have seen and heard him conduct a thousand times. But on this occasion, he was not just a conductor — good ol’ Jimmy — but a curiosity. Rarely has a musician been under such a microscope. What kind of freedom would he have in his upper body?

He began the program with Wagner, the prelude to Lohengrin. As he conducted, he seemed to have decent latitude with that upper body. He was never much of a flailer or swayer anyway. The prelude was nicely shaped, but not immaculate — not perfectly precise, as one can expect from Levine.

Next on the program was a piano concerto, meaning that there would have to be some rearranging onstage. A piano would come out, and chairs would be moved around. Ordinarily, the conductor is offstage during this period, but Levine stayed where he was, which was a little awkward. He chatted with some of his musicians.

The concerto was by Beethoven, his No. 4 in G major. And the soloist was Evgeny Kissin — born in 1971, the same year Levine made his debut at the Met. The world first knew Kissin when he was a twelve-year-old in the Soviet Union, wearing a red Young Pioneers scarf. He recorded the Chopin concertos. Now he is in his glorious prime, as evidenced by a recital in Carnegie Hall just two weeks before his appearance with Levine and the Met orchestra.

He has an extensive history with Levine. In 1997, they recorded two Beethoven concertos together (though not the G-major). In 2005, they gave a duo-piano recital at Carnegie, all-Schubert. (Levine could have had a major career as a pianist, I believe, but went in another direction.) That recital was later released as an album.

The Beethoven concerto in question begins with the piano, followed by the orchestra. The orchestra’s entrance was poor — a little muffed. That’s not Levine-like. The entrance following the cadenza was a little muffed too. Again, not Levine-like. There were some unwanted tempo fluctuations, and there was also a lack of coordination between conductor and soloist. At times, Kissin looked at Levine a little anxiously. But remember: I and others hold these guys to very high standards (their own).

I doubt there has ever been a better conductor of the middle movement of this concerto than Levine. It is a kind of conversation, or argument, between orchestra and piano. The orchestra is bold, ferocious; the piano is gentle and plaintive. I remember Levine carving out the orchestra’s notes in 2006 (with Daniel Barenboim at the piano). He was almost shockingly good. On this occasion, he was less good — less powerful, less precise — but it was still Levine’s Beethoven.

So was the final movement, the Rondo. Here, Levine was very much himself. The music was compact, bouncing, sure.

I have not talked much about the pianist, because Levine is the main character in this story, but he, Kissin, was superb: elegant, aristocratic, at the top of his game. It is possible that one day this performance will be regarded as historic — rather like Josef Hofmann’s of the G-major, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy conducting, in 1938.

After many curtain calls, Kissin gave the audience an encore, keeping with the same composer in the same key. He played the Rondo a capriccio, Op. 129, known to one and all as “Rage over a Lost Penny.” He played the piece stunningly, to within an inch of its life. It was maybe a bit long for an encore after a concerto. I thought of a famous headline from long ago: “Menuhin Fiddles, Orchestra Burns.” But the Met orchestra did not seem to mind, applauding Kissin heartily afterward.

By the way, Kissin, in profile, is looking more and more like his predecessor, Rubinstein — not Artur Rubinstein (born in 1887), but Anton Rubinstein (born in 1829). (When he was a young man, Artur Rubinstein had a card printed up that said, under his name, “No Relation.”)

Throughout his career, Levine has given long concerts — longer than average. I have often written, “He gives you your money’s worth.” After intermission on this day, he conducted Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C major, the “Great.” Schumann, in his music-critic mode, commented on this symphony’s “heavenly length.” It could be that Levine was trying to make a statement about his stamina. Or it could be that he simply wanted to conduct the “Great.”

He conducted it in more or less Levine-like fashion — which is to say, in more or less Szell-like fashion. The late, great George Szell was a mentor to him. They share such qualities as discipline, rigor, clarity, and adherence to a composer’s wishes. At their best, they do not give you a sense of interpretation. They give you a sense that this is how it goes, naturally and inevitably.

Levine produced a sound that was brawny yet burnished. He did not allow a drop of Romantic soup. The music became a touch dry, however. It also became somewhat monotonous, unvaried, without its tensions and excitement. The music was on autopilot, to a degree. But who wouldn’t rather hear Levine below par than most other conductors at their best?

The audience roared their approval, and relief, and gratitude. Levine is scheduled to lead three operas at the Met next season. He is also scheduled to lead concerts at Carnegie Hall. Will he be able to keep his appointments, and in what shape? There is an applicable line from AA: “One day at a time.” May 19 was a historic concert in Carnegie Hall, and a good one, and a brave one. It reawakened the appetite for more, unendingly.

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