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October 2013
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Levine Back in the Saddle

Lisa Flynn, host of "The New Releases"

Lisa Flynn on Levine’s return

James Levine has been a hot property for a long time. Some cautioned he was over-extending himself when he agreed to take on the Boston Symphony, given his large commitment at the Metropolitan Opera, but he persisted, only to have to withdraw from all conducting engagements for an extended period; an event that prompted many to presume he was done.

Nevertheless after two years, multiple surgeries, a farewell to Boston, and physical therapy, Mr. Levine is back in the pit, now using a wheelchair, and a custom designed podium, dubbed the “maestro lift.” James Levine is a legend at the Met, having an association that spans over four decades. He’s even issued a new recording, WFMT’s New Release of the Week. Here’s what WFMT’s resident critic Lisa Flynn has to say:

1. Do you remember him at Ravinia (or have you liked his recordings with the CSO)? What are your impressions of him with an orchestra you know well?

Unfortunately, I’ve never had the chance to hear James Levine live in concert, but I know his recordings well. He built an incredible rapport with the CSO during his years as music director at the Ravinia Festival. Some of my favorites from that time are Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Mahler’s Seventh Symphony and a Gershwin album which included “Rhapsody in Blue” with Levine as pianist.

2. Do you think as an American conductor he’s achieved the same status as Europeans?

Certainly. He has recorded extensively with European orchestras and has been a frequent guest conductor there. As one of the great Wagnerians of our time, he also led highly acclaimed performances at the Bayreuth Festival.

3. Has he been good for the Met?

Levine has been the Met’s music director since 1973. That’s one of the longest periods of artistic leadership for any opera company, and the Met’s unrivaled reputation over the last four decades is due overwhelmingly to his guidance. In 1996, for Levine’s 25th anniversary, the Met held a gala performance and nearly 50 singers took part. The concert went on and on for hours, with Levine conducting the whole way. That shows the incredible respect that singers have for his stewardship.

4. Do you think he’s better in some repertoire than others? (Is he an Italian repertoire guy, or a German guy, or Romantic etc)

His greatest strength is his ability to conduct any type of repertoire. He really does it all – from Mozart to Puccini to Wagner and Berg. And singers love working with him because he knows the score inside and out. There’s an energy and clarity that Levine brings to every opera, whatever the style.

5. Impressions of this new CD?

This May 19 performance at Carnegie Hall with the Met Orchestra marked Levine’s return to conducting after a two-year absence due to injury. I’m sure many in the audience were wondering if we’d ever hear the Levine of old again. But, from the first work, the Act I Prelude from Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” you can tell he’s back. There’s the transparency and warmth that have been hallmarks of his style. Listening to the rest of the concert – Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto and Schubert’s Ninth Symphony – you would not be able to guess that this is a conductor who has been through a long series of medical crises.

6. Does the Met orchestra measure up to a great symphony orchestra?

When Levine took over as music director of the Met, he said one of his goals was to transform its orchestra. Since 1991, the orchestra has given several performances each season at Carnegie Hall, not only to show its incredibly high standards but to broaden the orchestra’s repertoire beyond the operatic. From this recording and others they’ve made over the years, you can hear that this ensemble is on the level of the world’s great symphony orchestras.

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