James Levine returned to the podium on Friday (July 7) following a four-month break — the longest of his professional career — taken at doctors' orders. He conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Festival Chorus at the opening concert of the 2006 Tanglewood Festival.
And he was, by all reports, fabulous.
"Levine may not yet be ready to dance Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake," wrote Richard Dyer in The Boston Globe, "but he's lighter and more secure on his feet and visibly overjoyed to be back in his favorite element, music — sometimes he looked like a baby, splashing in the water."
Bernard Holland gave a brief "medical report" in The New York Times: "Mr. Levine can wave his arms just fine, thank you. He looks a few sizes smaller, and that has probably kept his tailor busy. He walks reasonably well, but he does sit when he conducts. He will never be sylphlike."
Audience members agreed. "I've seen him a little more energized, but for a return after four months, this is very impressive," longtime BSO fan George Marshall told the Associated Press's Adam Gorlick. "Beethoven really brought the house down," said Tanglewood first-timer Nikos Odysseas Papagapitos, "[The performance] lived up to my expectations and surpassed them."
The Beethoven was the Symphony No. 9, which was paired with Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1. The program was the very same one he had just finished conducting on March 1 when he fell off the stage of Boston's Symphony Hall and tore the rotator cuff in his right shoulder. He had surgery to repair the muscle injury and was ordered by physicians to cancel all his appearances for the next four months, which he spent in rest, study and physical therapy.
He still conducts while seated in a raised chair, as he has for several years, but on Friday he occasionally leapt out of it for a moment when particularly excited. The Globe observed that "the 35-pound weight loss seems to have liberated his arms," though he's still careful with the right one; the Times wrote that "Mr. Levine did not throw his upper body around with abandon, but then he never did, and does not have to."
Lest we forget: the music was, as Holland put it in the Times, "healthy indeed." The Globe's Dyer described the performances of both works as "remarkable in every respect"; Holland wrote that the Schoenberg "luxuriated — dense, slippery and sinuous in a sea of constant change," while the Beethoven "profited from Mr. Levine's paradoxical talent for being both elegant and powerful."