NEW YORK (AP) — James Levine rolled onto the Carnegie Hall stage in his black motorized wheelchair and into a 6-by-6-foot mechanical podium constructed by the Metropolitan Opera.
Belted into the wheelchair, Levine and two aides waited while the podium hoisted him about 3 feet in the air and its interior rotated 180 degrees to leave him facing the audience. Given a 1-minute standing ovation, he blew a kiss to the crowd in the sold-out 2,804-seat auditorium, raised his fists in triumph and tapped his heart.
And then it was to business. After an absence of more than two years caused by a fall that left him partially paralyzed, the Met's music director had returned.
Looking a bit like a starship captain in the commander's chair, Levine conducted the prelude to Wagner's "Lohengrin," Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 with Evgeny Kissin and Schubert's Symphony No. 9 (Great) on Sunday afternoon, the first step toward his return the Met next fall. He received a 71/2-minute standing ovation at the end.
Levine, who turns 70 on June 23, has transformed the Met since his debut in 1971 and joined Leonard Bernstein as the most acclaimed American conductors. He has been the leading force at the Met for four decades as chief conductor (1973-76), music director (1976-86 and 2004-present) and artistic director (1986-2004).
But Levine's health began to deteriorate. He was afflicted with aggravated Parkinsonism — a relatively benign form of Parkinson's disease — starting in 1994. He tore a rotator cuff in March 2006 when he tripped and fell on the stage of Boston's Symphony Hall during ovations, and his right kidney was removed in July 2008 because of a malignant tumor. Then he had surgery in 2009 to repair a herniated disk in his back and a second back operation in 2010.
By then he was conducting from a chair and by 2011 he took his bows from the podium in the Met's orchestra pit rather than walk on stage. He resigned as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a position he had held since 2004, and canceled his appearances on a Met tour of Japan that was to celebrate his 40th anniversary with the company.
Two more back surgeries followed in May and July 2011 and the next month he fell and damaged a vertebrae, leaving him with no feeling in his legs. He canceled his entire 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons at the Met, leaving the company to scramble for fill-in conductors for his many assignments.
With intensive therapy, he regained feeling in his legs and in recent months has started to walk. He said doctors are hopeful for a complete recovery at some point. But for now, he conducts from the wheelchair.
Wearing a black shirt — the outfit he switched to several years ago — rather than white-tie-and-tails, he seemed to have freer movement than he did before the 2011 surgeries. His upper body was strong, and the gestures he made with his left hand to increase and decrease the orchestra's level and shape its sound were the same as the Levine of old.
His return program opened with a rendition of the "Lohengrin" prelude notable for the shimmering spaciousness of the strings in A-major. Before Sunday, his last performance had been a televised "Die Walkuere" on May 14, 2014, and his illness created a hole in the company's Ring Cycles last spring and this that Fabio Luisi never quite filled.
Levine's Wagner has texture and force, an ebb and flow that creates great import, yet a lightness that lets all the colors shine. In all of nine minutes, he showed what the Met had been missing.
He followed with frothy Beethoven accompanying Kissim, an energetic rendering of the G Major that never sounded rushed. The andante con moto was ominous and the closing rondo galloping. Kissim added a fun encore of Beethoven's "Rage Over a Lost Penny, Vented in a Caprice."
Levine's Schubert, which followed intermission, was grand and lavish with an arch that intensified toward the conclusion. By the final ovations, Levine looked overjoyed.
He is scheduled for three productions at the Met next season: revivals of Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" starting Sept. 24 and Berg's "Wozzeck" beginning March 6, and a new-to-the-Met staging of Verdi's "Falstaff" opening Dec. 6. He also will conduct the Met Orchestra's three Carnegie concerts.
Levine says if all goes well, he will increase his schedule in 2014-15. Many a conductor's best work took place after age 70. After Sunday's performance, Levine can start looking forward to his renaissance years.