James Levine, wheelchair-bound, returns to conducting

Conductor James Levine, with members of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, at a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York.
Conductor James Levine, with members of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, at a concert at Carnegie Hall in New York.
(Marty Sohl / Associated Press)

Following an absence of more than two years to recover from injuries and illnesses, James Levine made his big return to the podium Sunday to conduct the Metropolitan Opera orchestra at Carnegie Hall.

But the 69-year-old Levine didn’t entirely return to form, having to lead the concert from the confines of a wheelchair.

Though questions remain about Levine’s long-term ability to conduct, “this was a day to celebrate his return and bask in his musical glory,” wrote New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini.


When Levine entered Stern Auditorium on Sunday afternoon, he received a minute-long standing ovation from the audience, according to reports. A mechanized lift raised him and the chair to the podium so that he could lead the orchestra.

Sunday’s sold-out matinee concert featured Levine conducting the prelude to Act I of Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, with soloist Evgeny Kissin. The concert was streamed live on the Metropolitan Opera’s website.

“On this afternoon, he came across as a conductor with something to prove,” Tommasini wrote. “Wagner has long been a Levine specialty, and there could not have been a more revealing work to open this momentous performance than the Prelude to ‘Lohengrin.’”

Levine remains the music director of the Metropolitan Opera even though he has been largely absent from the company’s main stage for the past two seasons. Fabio Luisi, the company’s principal conductor, has filled in for Levine on a number of occasions, including the recent performances of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle operas.

In 2011, Levine stepped down as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons has been named his successor.

Levine has undergone a number of surgical procedures in recent years, mostly on his back. He suffered a major fall in 2011 that left him partially paralyzed and unable to walk. In 2008, he had one of his kidneys removed.

If all goes as planned, Levine will conduct three productions next season at the Metropolitan Opera -- Verdi’s “Falstaff,” Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” and Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck.”


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