Maestro James Levine, Back At The Podium(s) Again

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Conductor James Levine takes a curtain call after Robert Lepage's new production of Wagner's "Das Rheingold" at New York's Metropolitan Opera's. (Marty Sohl/Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera)
Conductor James Levine, center, takes a curtain call after Robert Lepage's new production of Wagner's "Das Rheingold" at New York's Metropolitan Opera. (Marty Sohl/Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera)

Saturday night Maestro James Levine takes the stage at Symphony Hall after months of recuperating from major back surgery. The conductor was forced to cancel more than half of his performances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra last season. He’ll kick off the BSO’s new season with a program of music by Wagner.

And while Wagner’s music is highly dramatic, it seems Levine’s return is causing some drama of its own.

Over the past few months people have been wondering if Levine would even make it back to the podium. But the tension broke this week after he successfully led the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra through a marathon of sorts: “Das Rheingold,” the first installment of the Met’s new, high-tech version of Wagner's “Ring” cycle.

"Ah, the audience went crazy for the man," bass-baritone Bryn Terfel said, adding, "they absolutely adore him in this house, as do all the singers that perform with him."

Terfel sings the part of Woton, King of the Gods, in the Met's new “Ring.” He, and the critics, agree that Levine was in top form for the duration of this complicated work. It opened the opera house's season and runs nearly three hours — without an intermission.

As it turns out, the Welsh baritone can relate, personally, to the maestro’s health issues.

"Maestro Levine [is] coming from the same problems I’ve had in the past couple of years, the back problems, and I’ve had three or four operations, so it does take time," Terfel said.

At the Met the maestro was obviously being careful.

"He took a few gingerly paced steps onto the platform, so, hopefully he’ll be fine with us in the opening of your symphony in Boston," Terfel said.

Terfel will sing at Symphony Hall in Saturday night’s all-Wagner program. He’s at ease with how the performance will go, even when I explained how there’s been a lot of speculation in Boston, and elsewhere, over Levine’s recovery.

"You shouldn’t worry about that Andrea," Terfel said, from the Met's radio studio in New York. "I think you’re too worried about the consequences of his surgeries."

But the fact is, people are worried. And while everyone expects opening night to go smoothly, the true test comes a week from Saturday. That’s when Levine is scheduled to lead a matinee performance of “Das Rheingold” at the Met in New York -– then he’ll fly to Boston for Mahler’s Second Symphony with the BSO. All in the same day.

It's a super-human feat for a person in perfect health, according to Lloyd Schwartz, classical music editor for the Boston Pheonix. He calls next weekend "a logistical nightmare."

"I don’t know who was asleep at the wheel when that schedule was being made to have James Levine conduct a long, intermission-less Wagner opera in the afternoon that is being telecast (in HD) live all over the world, and then in Boston having to conduct an hour and a half Mahler Symphony that night," Schwartz said.

In response to that question, Mark Volpe, managing director of the BSO, said Levine is in charge of his own schedule.

"No one was asleep at the wheel," Volpe said. He continued, "I certainly expressed concern both verbally and in writing. I mean, his contractual obligation is to be here at eight o’clock on Saturday night; I think the players are concerned, the board was certainly concerned, I am concerned, but ultimately, this notion that somebody is asleep at the wheel, I mean, he’s making that decision to do this."

Maestro Levine shared his side of the story from his Symphony Hall dressing room on Friday afternoon — minutes before hitting the stage for his first rehearsal back with the BSO.

"This schedule was planned at a time when I wasn’t supposed to have a big surgery, and it didn’t seem to disturb any body then," he said, with a good-natured laugh.

Levine isn't worried about his ability to lead Mahler's second Symphony in Boston, even if it is only a few hours after his New York performance of "Das Rheingold."

"The second Mahler is a piece of tremendous excitement and impact," the conductor explained, "but this is a piece I’ve been conducting since I was twenty, and I’m used to doing Wagner operas of twice the density of this."

Levine said he doesn't mean to minimize the difficulty of the Mahler piece. Or the tight schedule. He admitted to being fascinated by people's concern about his itinerary — as well as his ability to pull it off.

"I didn't make music since last February, which is the longest time in my entire life," Levine explained, "and I started working at the beginning of September at the Met so I’d have a month of pre-season just to get in stride before I came here."

Levine's post-surgery rehabilitation has been strenuous, according to the maestro, but well worth it. He looks thinner than he has in the past. His eyes are bright. His signature hair still wild. Part of Levine's recovery includes periodic use of a mobility scooter so he doesn't spend too much time on his feet, walking up and down the cavernous concert halls in Boston and New York. And, the conductor said, he's "mostly pain free."

"I just miss making live music with my very live colleagues," Levine admitted, "It’s just what I do."

Like a lot of people, BSO managing director Mark Volpe is concerned about the maestro pushing himself too hard, too fast. But Volpe also said he understands, to an extent, why Levine put himself in this position.

"This is a guy who for his entire, not just his professional life, but his childhood, has been almost singularly focused on being a great pianist, being a great conductor." Then Volpe echoed what Levine said of himself. "This is what he does," Volpe said.

While Volpe gets this, he’s also the one who’s had to scramble to find guest conductors, time after time, when Levine bowed out of his BSO schedule last season — and also for injuries and surgeries in years past.

There have been discussions about Levine’s future with the orchestra. And plenty of chatter among classical critics and fans about all the reasons why the maestro should stay -– or go.

Ticket sales are down about 10 percent from this time last year. Things are picking up though, according to Volpe, because he said audiences are starting to feel secure with the idea that Levine is really coming back.

Regardless, Volpe admitted the stakes are high. "Certainly institutionally," he said, "but the stakes are even higher for Jim."

And also for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where James (Jim) Levine has been conducting for 40 years.

Although Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, doesn't seem overly concerned about Levine's ability to conquer next weekend's intense schedule.

"Throughout Levine’s career he has regularly risen to that kind of challenge. He’s legendary for taking on more work than any other conductors," Gelb said.

While that might be the case, Gelb acknowledges this season - and Levine's upcoming marathon weekend of Wagner and Mahler - will be more challenging for the 67-year-old conductor, given his recent surgery.

As for the BSO, the uncertainty is unnerving, but Volpe is hopeful. He says no one will really know what’s physically possible for Levine until the maestro actually does it.

Looking ahead to the Mahler symphony in Boston next weekend Volpe mused, "Well, Jim is certainly a man of the theatre, and if there was ever a theatrical dimension to a concert, this is it."

This program aired on October 1, 2010.

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Andrea Shea Correspondent, Arts & Culture
Andrea Shea is a correspondent for WBUR's arts & culture reporter.



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