James Levine

Levine, James

Levine was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, to a Jewish, musical family. His maternal grandfather was a composer and a cantor in a synagogue; his father, Lawrence, was a violinist who led dance bands under the name “Larry Lee” before entering his father’s clothing business; and his mother, Helen Goldstein Levine, was briefly an actress on Broadway, performing as “Helen Golden.”[4][5] He had a brother, Tom, who was two years younger, who followed him to New York City from Cincinnati in 1974, and with whom he was very close.[6][7] He employed Tom as his business assistant, looking after his affairs, arranging his rehearsal schedules, fielding queries, scouting out places to live, meeting with accountants, and accompanying Levine on trips to Europe. Tom was also a painter.[6][5][8][9][10] He also had a younger sister, Janet, who is a marriage counselor.[5][11]

He began to play the piano as a small child. On February 21, 1954, at age 10, Levine made his concert debut as soloist playing Felix Mendelssohn‘s Piano Concerto No. 2 at a youth concert of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in Ohio.

Levine subsequently studied music with Walter Levin, first violinist in the LaSalle Quartet. In 1956 he took piano lessons with Rudolf Serkin at the Marlboro Music School in Vermont. The next year he began to study piano with Rosina Lhévinne at the Aspen Music School.[12] He graduated from Walnut Hills High School, a magnet school in Cincinnati. He entered the Juilliard School of Music in New York City in 1961, and took courses in conducting with Jean Morel. He graduated from Juilliard in 1964, and joined the American Conductors project connected with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Levine lived in The San Remo on Central Park West in New York City.[13][14]

From 1964 to 1965, Levine served as an apprentice to George Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra. He then served as the Orchestra’s assistant conductor until 1970. That year, he also made debuts as guest conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra at its summer home at Robin Hood Dell, the Welsh National Opera, and the San Francisco Opera. From 1965 to 1972 he concurrently taught at the Cleveland Institute of Music.[15] In the summers, he worked at the Meadow Brook School of Music in Michigan and at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Illinois, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. During that time, the charismatic Levine developed a devoted following of young musicians and music lovers.[15]

In June 1971, Levine was called in at the last moment to substitute for István Kertész,[16] to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Mahler’s Second Symphony for the Ravinia Festival’s opening concert of their 36th season. This concert began a long association with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. From 1973 to 1993 he was music director of the Ravinia Festival,[17] succeeding the late Kertész. He made numerous recordings with the orchestra, including the symphonies and German Requiem of Johannes Brahms, and major works of Gershwin, Holst, Berg, Beethoven, Mozart, and others. In 1990, at the request of Roy E. Disney, he arranged the music and conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in the soundtrack of Fantasia 2000, released by Walt Disney Pictures. From 1974 to 1978, Levine also served as music director of the Cincinnati May Festival.[18]

Metropolitan Opera[edit]

Program for Levine’s Met debut on June 5, 1971

Levine made his Metropolitan Opera debut at age 28 on June 5, 1971, leading a June Festival performance of Puccini’s Tosca. After further appearances with the company, he was named its principal conductor in February 1972.[19] He became its music director in 1975.[12] In 1983, he served as conductor and musical director for the Franco Zeffirelli screen adaptation of Verdi’s La Traviata, which featured the Met orchestra and chorus members. He became the company’s first artistic director in 1986, and relinquished the title in 2004.[20] In 2005, Levine’s combined salary from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Met made him the highest-paid conductor in the country, at $3.5 million.[21]

During Levine’s tenure, the Metropolitan Opera orchestra expanded its activities into recording and concert series for the orchestra and chamber ensembles from the orchestra at Carnegie Hall.[22] Levine led the Metropolitan Opera on many domestic and international tours.[12] For the 25th anniversary of his Met debut, Levine conducted the world premiere of John Harbison‘s The Great Gatsby, commissioned for the occasion. On his appointment as general manager of the Met, Peter Gelb emphasized that Levine was welcome to remain as long as he wanted to direct music there.[23] Levine was paid $2.1 million by the Met in 2010.[24]

Following a series of injuries that began with a fall, Levine’s health problems led to his withdrawal from many Metropolitan Opera engagements. After a May 2011 performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre, Levine formally withdrew from all engagements at the Met.[25] After two years of physical therapy, he returned to conducting with a May 2013 concert with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.[26] On September 25, 2013, Levine conducted his first Met performance since May 2011, in a revival production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte.[27][28] He was scheduled to conduct three productions at the opera house and three at Carnegie Hall in the 2013–14 season.[29] On April 14, 2016, Met management announced that Levine would step down from his position as music director at the end of the 2015–16 season.[30] Levine was paid $1.8 million by the Met for the 2015–16 season.[31] He assumed the new title of Music Director Emeritus, which he held until December 2017, when in the wake of allegations that Levine had sexually abused four young men, the Met suspended its relationship with him and canceled all his scheduled performances with the company.[32][33]

Levine first conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) in April 1972.[34] In October 2001, he was named its music director effective with the 2004–05 season, with an initial contract of five years,[35] becoming the first American-born conductor to head the BSO.[36]

One unique condition that Levine negotiated was increased flexibility of the time allotted for rehearsal, allowing the orchestra additional time to prepare more challenging works.[37] After the start of his tenure, the orchestra also established an “Artistic Initiative Fund” of about $40 million to fund the more expensive of his projects.[38]

One criticism of Levine during his BSO tenure is that he did not attend many orchestra auditions. A 2005 article reported that he had attended two out of 16 auditions during his tenure up to that time. Levine responded that he has the ability to provide input on musician tenure decisions after the initial probationary period, and that it is difficult to know how well a given player will fit the given position until that person has had a chance to work with the orchestra: “My message is the audition isn’t everything.”[39]

Another 2005 report stated that during Levine’s first season as music director, the greater workload from the demands of playing more unfamiliar and contemporary music had increased physical stress on some of the BSO musicians. Levine and the players met to discuss this, and he agreed to program changes to lessen these demands.[40] He received general critical praise for revitalizing the orchestra’s quality and repertoire since the beginning of his tenure.[41]

Levine experienced ongoing health problems, starting with an onstage fall in 2006 that resulted in a torn rotator cuff and started discussion of how long Levine’s tenure with the BSO would last.[42] In April 2010, in the wake of his continuing health problems, it emerged that Levine had not officially signed a contract extension, so that he was the BSO’s music director without a signed contract.[43] On March 2, 2011, the BSO announced Levine’s resignation as music director effective September 2011, after the Orchestra’s Tanglewood season.[44]

Working on a commission from Levine and the BSO, the composer John Harbison dedicated his Symphony No. 6 “in friendship and gratitude” to him, whose premature departure from the orchestra prevented him from conducting the premiere.[45][46]

After allegations of his abusing a number of young men came out in December 2017 the BSO said Levine “will never be employed or contracted by the BSO at any time in the future.”[47]

Levine’s BSO contract limited his guest appearances with American orchestras, but he still conducted regularly in Europe, with the Vienna PhilharmonicBerlin Philharmonic, and at the Bayreuth Festival. Levine was a regular guest with the Philharmonia of London and the Staatskapelle Dresden. Beginning in 1975 he conducted regularly at the Salzburg Festival and the annual July Verbier Festival. From 1999 to 2004, he was chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic, and was credited with improving the quality of instrumental ensemble during his tenure.[48]

Levine initiated the Lindemann Young Artists Development Program at the Metropolitan Opera in 1980,[49] a professional training program for graduated singers with, today, many famous alumni.

Levine was conductor of the UBS Verbier Festival Orchestra, the student resident orchestra at the annual summer music festival in Verbier, Switzerland, from 1999 through 2006.[50] It was Levine’s first long-term commitment to a student orchestra since becoming music director at the Met.

After becoming music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Levine also served as music director of the Tanglewood Music Center, the BSO’s acclaimed summer academy at Tanglewood for student instrumentalists, singers, composers, and conductors.[12] There he conducted the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, directed fully staged opera performances with student singers, and gave master classes for singers and conductors.

Levine said in an interview:

At my age, you are naturally inclined towards teaching. You want to teach what you have learned to the next generation so that they don’t have to spend time reinventing the wheel. I was lucky that I met the right mentors and teachers at the right moment. I love working with young musicians and singers, and those at the Tanglewood Music Center are unequivocally some of the finest and most talented in the world.

He continued to work with young students even when his health issues kept him from conducting.[51] He was awarded the Lotus Award (“for inspiration to young musicians”) from Young Concert Artists.[52] Anthony Tommasini wrote in The New York Times in 2016: “The aspiring singers in the Met’s young artist development program, one of many important ventures Mr. Levine started, must understand how lucky they are to have, as a teacher and mentor, a musician who even in his 20s worked at the Met with giants like Jon Vickers and Renata Tebaldi.”[53]

Levine experienced recurrent health issues beginning in 2006, including sciatica and what he called “intermittent tremors“.[54] On March 1, 2006, he tripped and fell onstage during a standing ovation after a performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and tore the rotator cuff in his right shoulder, leaving the remaining subscription concerts in Boston to his assistant conductor at the time. Later that month, Levine underwent surgery to repair the injury. He returned to the podium on July 7, 2006.[55]

Levine withdrew from the majority of the Tanglewood 2008 summer season because of surgery required to remove a kidney with a malignant cyst.[35] He returned to the podium in Boston on September 24, 2008, at Symphony Hall.[56]

On September 29, 2009, it was announced that Levine would undergo emergency back surgery for a herniated disk. He missed three weeks of engagements.[57]

In March 2010, the BSO announced that Levine would miss the remainder of the Boston Symphony season because of back pain.[58][59] The Met also announced, on April 4, 2010, that he was withdrawing from the remainder of his performances for the season. According to the Met, Levine was required to have “corrective surgery for an ongoing lower back problem”.[60] He returned to conducting at the Met and the BSO at the beginning of the 2010–11 season, but in February 2011 canceled his Boston engagements for the rest of the season.

In the summer of 2011, Levine underwent further surgery on his back. In September 2011, after he fell down a flight of stairs, fractured his spine, and injured his back while on vacation in Vermont, the Met announced that he would not conduct at the Met at least for the rest of 2011.[51][61]

After two years of surgery and physical therapy, Levine returned to conducting for the first time on May 19, 2013, in a concert with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Levine conducted from a motorized wheelchair, with a special platform designed to accommodate it, which could rise and descend like an elevator.[26][51] He returned to the Met on September 24, 2013.[62] The same type of platform was present in the Met orchestra pit for his September 2013 return performance.[27]

For many years, both Levine and the Met denied as unfounded the rumors that Levine had Parkinson’s disease.[63] As New York magazine reported: “The conductor states flatly that the condition is not Parkinson’s disease, as people had speculated in ‘that silly Times piece.'”[64] But in 2016 both he and the Met finally admitted that the rumors were true, and that Levine had in fact had the disease since 1994.[63] The Washington Post noted: “It wasn’t just the illnesses, but the constant alternation between concealment and an excess of revelation that kept so much attention focused on them and away from the music.”[63]

Levine died in his Palm Springs home on March 9, 2021. Len Horovitz, his personal physician, announced Levine’s death on March 17 and said that he had died of natural causes.[1][65]

Albums Featuring this Artist