NEW YORK - The reaction to James Levine's return to conducting Sunday can only be described in Yiddish:
- an outcry like no other.
Amid Levine's two years of surgeries, setbacks, and rehabilitation for back, spine, and other problems, many feared the beloved Metropolitan Opera music director would never again be seen alive, much less conducting a program of Wagner, Beethoven, and Schubert. But there he was, arriving onstage in Carnegie Hall with the Met Orchestra, riding a custom-made scooter with a rostrum that raised him, in the fashion of a hydraulic stage elevator, slightly above the orchestra.
The extended family was there: numerous Met officials, including retired general manager Joseph Volpe and that intriguing blind woman seen at every Met opening, sitting in front with her guide dog.
Levine was his ebullient self, blowing kisses to the audience. His arms, face, and mind were in full working order for a concert that was echt-Levine - and then some. And after the opening moments, it seemed he had never been away; the many cancellations and reported sightings of him in hospital emergency rooms were erased. Levine was where he belongs - at home with his orchestra, his music, and us.
Schubert's Symphony No. 9 wasn't so different from past performances. Tempos were moderate, with a bit of Mozartean buoyance in the first movement, a proto-Mahlerian march into tragedy in the second, and a number of places where the Met Orchestra sonority seemed more imposing than I've ever heard it. No showy surface details, but a sense that he and the musicians were a well-oiled musical mechanism, sailing through beautifully managed transitions that made the piece's ideas follow each other with a divinely inspired inevitability. Or, rather, Levinely inspired inevitability.
In the Lohengrin Act I prelude, not a nanosecond was taken for granted, conveying the first blush of discovery, but backed up by Levine's lifetime of experience, study, and artistry. Such qualities are what music lovers live to hear but don't often encounter. Obviously, sturdy legs aren't necessary for great conducting, as proven by Otto Klemperer, Karl Böhm, Herbert von Karajan, and Eugene Ormandy in later years.
Only at such an occasion would pianist Evgeny Kissin seem a bit outclassed in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4. Though he's invariably impressive for his command of the keyboard, he tended to fuss around with lots of effects suggesting he was playing lightweight Chopin - effects that seemed all the more superficial next to Levine's deeply felt accompaniment. Then came Kissin's encore: Beethoven's repetitive, clattery Rage Over a Lost Penny. What a mood-ruiner.