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Power Conductor/Power Chair

The NY Times Music Critic, Anthony Tommasini, concludes his rave review of James Levine’s return to conducting after a two-year absence on a most peculiar note: “…you have to admire the pluck and determination he has shown in this remarkable comeback.”

Pluck and determination are terms usually reserved for Little Orphan Annie, and not for “one of the greatest living American conductors.”  You have to wonder why. 

Levine has returned to conducting using a motorized wheelchair.  A number of health problems over the past several years have made it increasingly difficult for him to walk.  For the concert, Carnegie Hall provided an elevating podium, with wood paneling designed to match the elegant interior of the room. 

Tommasini commented on these accommodations, and detailed the careful staging of Levine’s entrances, and his pivots to greet the audience. In describing a seeming glitch in his rotation of his chair, Tommasini noted that this is a reminder of “how unusual it is for a conductor to have to work out such mechanical matters.”

“This was Mr. Levine at his best,“ he wrote, and added many particulars about the power of the conducting and of the conductor – who “was actually bouncing around on the chair, smiling at the musicians, sometimes singing the music audibly and looking altogether unrestrained.”  All in all, he gave Levine a strong positive review.
Levine loves his craft, loves his work.  It is, in many respects, unremarkable that he should return to it.  That is not to discount how difficult it must have been to regain the strength and agility he needed, but to acknowledge what was likely Levine’s capacity to see himself doing what he had always done, in a different way.
The boldness of Levine’s imagination is familiar to many disabled people.  In the face of so much evidence that being an actor, or a doctor, or a teacher or a conductor is not the province of people with significant impairments, many plow through and do it.  Tommasini’s reductive “pluck and determination” barely covers that complexity, and his terminology diminishes the potency of an otherwise glowing review of Levine’s conducting triumph.

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