James Levine with the Metropolitan Opera. (Ken Howard / Metropolitan…)
James Levine has just earned some of the most important rave reviews of his long and distinguished career -- not from music critics, but from doctors on his medical team, who say that the long-ailing conductor has achieved a "remarkable" recuperation from severe back injuries and can resume performing with the Metropolitan Opera next spring.
The Met announced Levine's impending return on Thursday, with what may be the first news release by a performing arts group to be dominated by quotes from four physicians.
Levine's first performance is scheduled for May 19, 2013, about a month shy of his 70thbirthday, when he is to conduct the Metropolitan Opera orchestra in a concert at Carnegie Hall.
His conducting workload for the 2013-14 season that begins the following fall consists of three Carnegie Hall concerts and three operas -- Verdi's "Falstaff," Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" and Berg's "“Wozzeck."
The Met said that Levine has resumed some of his duties in recent weeks, meeting with the company's musicians and chorus, holding artistic planning sessions and coaching musicians in the company's young artists development program.
His last performance was in May 2011, when he conducted Wagner's "Die Walkure" at the Met. Back problems already had curtailed his performing and prompted him to resign early in 2011 from his other prominent post, music director of the Boston Symphony.
Levine's situation grew much worse when he fell that August, incurring a career-threatening spinal injury that left him partially paralyzed and required a series of operations.
"I'm feeling better with each passing day and look forward to returning to the company I love so much," said Levine, who debuted with the Met in 1971 and has been its music director since 1976. "I’m looking forward more than I can say to getting back to work."
Fabio Luisi, who has stood in during Levine’s absence, will continue with the Met as principal conductor, a position he was named to within a month of the music director's 2011 fall.
The Met said Levine "is still recovering" and remains "temporarily" unable to walk. He's expected to conduct from the motorized wheelchair that ne now uses. The Met’s technical department is designing special elevating podiums to accommodate it at the Metropolitan Opera House and Carnegie Hall.
Levine's spinal surgeon, Patrick O’Leary, said that "he is no longer in need of additional surgery ... and his prognosis is good."
Among the medical details in the news release was the revelation that Levine has had symptoms of Parkinson's disease since 1994, mainly affecting his legs and causing a mild tremor in his left hand.
Stanley Fahn, a Columbia University professor of neurology who has been treating Levine, said it's "a benign form of Parkinson’s, rather than the more typical form, in which symptoms steadily worsen." Fahn said the symptoms had been "suppressed" with medication over the years, but became aggravated by the stress of severe back pain after Levine's fall last summer.
Levine is pain-free now, the doctor said, and the mild form of the disease "should have little impact on his quality of life and his return to conducting. His upper body strength and dexterity are quite remarkable."
Levine's personal physician, Dr. Len Horovitz, described him as "an inspirational case, whose return to conducting will be the result of remarkable perseverance and hard work."
Levine's health troubles have included a shoulder injury incurred in 2006 when he fell onstage in Boston, the removal of a kidney in 2008 because of a cyst, and back surgery in 2009 for a herniated disc.
He's still wielding Met's stick
Should Fabio Luisi become music director of the Met Opera?
Conductor James Levine cancels fall performances after new injury
CRITIC'S PICKS: Fall Arts Preview
TIMELINE: John Cage's Los Angeles
PST: Art in L.A., 1945-1980