After Health Issues, Influential Conductor Back At Met Opera

Host Scott Simon speaks with New York Times classical music critic Anthony Tommasini about conductor James Levine's return to the Metropolitan Opera after a series of health problems kept him away for two years.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This weekend at Carnegie Hall, a giant returns to the podium. James Levine will lead the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for the first time in two years after a string of health challenges from shoulder injuries to spinal problems. He's considered by at least one critic to be the most influential American conductor since Leonard Bernstein. That critic is Anthony Tommasini, lead classical musical critic for the New York Times.

ANTHONY TOMMASINI: His association with the Met was particularly electric, I think, because he had the drama, he had the sense of the stage. He loved singing, but he did bring this kind of clarity and this intellectual rigor to whatever he conducted, whether it was an early Verdi opera or Schoenberg's "Moses and Aron." He brings to it also this real dramatic flair, this operatic flair, if you will, which permeates not just operas when he conducts them but also things as far off as Sebelius symphonies or Mozart symphonies.

SIMON: Reading your reviews - and trying to read between the lines, if I may, of your reviews - seems like you think he's almost without peer when it comes to being a conductor. But at the same time, you seem to have some qualms about how he handles the role of music director.

TOMMASINI: Music director of the Metropolitan Opera is one of the most important positions in the United States - in the world you could say. It's not just the performances that the music director conducts that matters so much - it's all the behind-the-scenes stuff - working with young artists, going to rehearsals, coaching singers, working with the orchestra. So, the question for the Met is they really need somebody to run the day-to-day artistic affairs of that company and really be involved. Whether James Levine can still do that is not clear.

SIMON: What will you be listening for?

TOMMASINI: Well, we will all cheer the return of James Levine to the podium. It will be very dramatic. He, as you know, has taken to using a motorized wheelchair and there's a special elevated lift that's going to serve as his podium. And will he have the upper arm flexibility? Will he be able to swivel and turn around to the left to face the pianist, Mr. Evgeny Kissin, in the Beethoven concerto? Will he have the stamina for the Shubert Ninth Symphony? It lasts almost an hour. How inspired, how in the moment will he be? I expect a big ovation when he comes out on stage. People love him.

SIMON: Anthony Tommasini, chief classical music critic for the New York Times. Thanks so much for being with us.

TOMMASINI: You're very welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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