Conductor: James Levine
Wagner: Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No 4 in G Major, Op. 58 - Eugene Kissin
Schubert: Symphony No 9 in C Major, D. 944 (The Great)
Very few people have the power to ignite a thunderous standing ovation as soon as they show up, but then again, James Levine is not just any conductor. And if anybody still had doubts about this state of things, the rock-star-worthy welcome he received in the packed Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall last Sunday afternoon would have definitely proved them wrong. This was a big day for all of us. Not only was he back after a two-year absence, but he would be conducting his beloved MET Orchestra too. To make things even more exciting, Eugene Kissin, a classical music superstar in his own right, would be the soloist for one of Beethoven's most dazzling piano concertos.
Since I've learned the hard way that it is best to grab tickets for popular events as soon as they become available, my seat had been secured since last summer. My mum, however, announced her visit's dates last winter, and by then the concert had been long sold-out. The sight of numerous people desperately seeking tickets in front of the hall half an hour before the concert start confirmed that getting her in would be mission impossible, so she gave up and I eagerly walked my way upstairs.
First of all, it was wonderful being able to actually see an orchestra to which I owe so many memorable moments at the Met, the not-so-secret weapon without which the prestigious opera house would probably not be considered such a mighty musical force throughout the world. Obviously thrilled by the return of their leader of four decades and counting, they delivered an impeccably gorgeous Prelude of Act I of Lohengrin, one of those magical moments that felt like time had really been suspended and nothing else mattered but the delicately polished flow of music coming from the glowing strings. Getting around in a motorized wheelchair and conducting from a custom-designed enclosure, James Levine looked energized and happy to be there. Those 10 minutes of pure bliss proved that he still had plenty to contribute and was more than capable to get the job brilliantly done.
After such a glorious opening number, it was hard not to think that things would go down by pure default. But the fact was, the thrill did no fade away, and Beethoven's piano concerto No 4 got a resolutely poised treatment by young Russian virtuoso Eugene Kissin, who mustered just the right balance of exquisite refinement and hot-blooded expressiveness. Neither the flamboyant showman nor the rigid intellectual, he sounded perfectly in tune with the complex score while James Levine and his orchestra provided unwavering respectful support, and the result was a big success. The keenly observant babushka sitting to my right, opera glasses firmly in hand, was beaming so wide that I thought she was going to jump right onstage to get even closer to the golden boy.
To reward our long and loud ovation, Eugene Kissin treated us to one encore. As if to brazenly show off his impressive technical skills, he tossed upon us a brightly sparkling but still tightly controlled Rondo a capriccio in G Major to everyone's delight.
As much as I love some of Schubert's chamber music and solo piano works, I have never been a big fan of his symphonies. Not to mention that there are plenty of symphonies in the classical music canon that I would consider more worthy candidates of being called "The Great" than his Symphony No. 9. But other people have clearly thought otherwise, and I must confess that after The MET Orchestra's enthusiastic performance of it last Sunday, I have almost joined the converts. Led by a James Levine firmly in charge, the musicians' playing was fluid and flawless, the four movements flew by with heart-felt gusto, and the undeniable grandeur of the whole symphony was as awe-inspiring as it has probably ever been. Let there be no doubt about it: The maestro's back.