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A miserable end for a once-great conductor

April 14, 2016 by norman lebrecht

43 comments.


No-one was in any doubt that James Levine was a rare talent. His Met debut in June 1971, aged 27, led to him being appointed principal conductor the following winter and music director in 1976. No conductor has enjoyed so long or intimate an association with America’s greatest opera house.

Levine created the best – and best-paid – opera orchestra in the country. He attracted the finest singers and won their total confidence. He gently nudged the static repertoire into the 20th century.

He was, in many ways, the making of the Met.

But his horizons were narrow. Outside of music he had few interests. Outside of the Met, few friends. He was protected from the world by a tough agent, Ronald Wilford, and an expensive personal entourage. He required record fees to pay for his retinue.

His musical ability was greater than his emotional intelligence. When Wilford died, he failed to make an appearance at the memorial service, unaware of how demeaning this appeared.

Severe illness impaired his capacity to conduct. He clung on with something like desperation, pleading with the Met’s manager, Peter Gelb, to let him keep the job.

He will now have to build a new life, from scratch. At 72, that will take some doing.

james levine wheelchair

For New Yorkers, the change is epochal. Alan Gilbert, music director of the Philharmonic, tweets: Wow–still processing news of Levine’s impending retirement. Not just an end of an era, it’s the end of THE era.


Comments (43)

  1. Mick says:

    What is “emotional intelligence”, if I may ask?

  2. Has been says:

    Ronald Wilford’s memorial service was not at Carnegie Hall. Furthermore, Levine had a Tannhaeuser performance that evening but sent a heartfelt tribute.

    1. Tessie Viola says:

      Thanks for this info. Interesting.

  3. R. Grooper says:

    “He clung to the job with something like desperation, pleading with the Met’s manager, Peter Gelb, to let him keep the job.”

    Completely absurd. What a stupid thing for Lebrecht to write.

    Levine has more intelligence and dignity in his little finger than Gelb has in his whole body. And Gelb despite pretending that he knows opera, cannot read a note of music, nor can he speak a language other than English. He cannot tell a good performance from a bad. As long as he has a “star” singing, all is fine, according to him. The repertoire is no longer carefully balanced as Levine usually succeeded in doing.
    [Gelb’s 5 Donizetti operas this season. And who will sing the new productions in
    future seasons? – a stupid waste of time, energy and money.]
    Gelb should resign. They say he’s a marketing person – but he can’t balance the budget at the Met, and ticket sales are the lowest they have ever been. What kind of marketing is that? The Board should unload him and get someone responsible there. But he has the Board believing he’s the 2nd coming. Good luck.

    1. MWnyc says:

      Actually, no, it’s not absurd.

      Read the February 3, 2016 New York Times article about Levine’s condition. And nobody around here thinks that article wasn’t accurate. (Besides which, until the decline in his health, the Times has always adored Levine.)

  4. Max Grimm says:

    “He will now have to build a new life, from scratch.”
    Taking into consideration his accomplishments to date, his age and his financial standing, why not simply enjoy retirement.

    1. MWnyc says:

      James Levine is not the kind of man to enjoy retirement. If he were, he’d have retired several years ago.

    2. MWnyc says:

      As for what Levine will do next, the Met’s press release says that he will continue to run the company’s young artists program, which is something he should still be extremely good at.

  5. harold braun says:

    Why is it a miserable end?For any serious(!)musician comes music first in life,and he hasn’t to start from scratch,he can continue guest conducting and coaching.Remember what Kurt Masur accomplished,far more stricken by the effects of Parkinson’s disease,and 16 years older than Levine…And where do you know from he pleaded with Mr.Gelb?Very speculative and tabloid press like…

    1. Bruce says:

      I know, he makes it sound like poor Jimmy is going to be homeless or something.

    2. Nobody Special says:

      Lord help me, but I’m about to defend NL!

      The NY Times article a few months back described that even though they were already laying down the ground work for Levine to retire, Levine made a last ditch effort to stay by taking Peter Gelb to his doctor’s appointment so he could hear the doctor say that Levine could continue to conduct if his medication was altered. It may not be pleading in the strictest of definitions, but I think the term is apt in this situation.

      And as for creating a new life from scratch, James Levine is notorious for only being focused on his work and nothing else. I seriously doubt he’ll do much guest conducting anymore. He cancelled his guest week in Philly this season and he can’t even get through all three of his Carnegie dates in May. Unable to work and without any other hobbies, passions, etc., what is he going to do?

      I suspect he wanted to be a conductor who worked until he more or less died on the podium. But his body has let him down. He’s not dead, but he can’t work. Though I’m glad to see him finally go because the Met needs to start afresh, it is still a very sad situation.

      1. Eli Bensky says:

        Maybe Mr. Levine can work on developing some opera conductors. It would be a privledge for some people to gain from his knowledge

  6. R. Grooper says:

    “He clung to the job with something like desperation, pleading with the Met’s manager, Peter Gelb, to let him keep the job.” That may be the stupidest thing LeBrecht has ever written.

    Levine would never plead for something from Gelb. Levine works for the Board of Directors, not Gelb. Besides, Levine has more intelligence and dignity in his little finger than Gelb has in his whole body. Gelb is a phony. He is known as a marketing man, but he can’t balance the budget and it’s common knowledge that ticket sales are the lowest they have ever been. He talks like he knows opera, but he can’t read music, nor does he speak any language other than English. He can’t tell a good performance from a bad one. He’s wearing the Emperor’s new clothes, but the Board believes he can walk on water.

    Maybe it is time for Levine to reduce his work at the Met, to conduct shorter, less physically-demanding operas. But no one knows what he does. He put the Met on the map – in every category – raising the quality of the orchestra and chorus to a world-class level, starting the Young Singers program at the Met which already has numerous distinguished alumni, to name just a few things. Gelb should be picking Levine’s brain, but Gelb’s ego is too big.

    Levine has been at the Met for 45 years. Gelb announces Levine’s no longer being Music Director after this season. One of Gelb’s lackeys should whisper in his ear, that after 45 years, and his endless accomplishments, Levine should be given a Gala to end all galas, or something – whatever, celebrating his tenure there. Levine has always been the most positive articulate musician whenever he has spoken about the Met. How about a positive spin on this, Mr. Gelb?

    1. MWnyc says:

      The Met’s press release did put a positive spin on it, as much as possible.

      And I’m sure Levine will get the gala to end all galas, but the Met has to at least begin organizing it before they announce it. They haven’t even had time to find a date when the singers who’d want to take part might be available.

  7. Larry T says:

    Why would you write something like this. You don’t often lead me to respond, (as I did with what you wrote about Ronald upon his death). It’s time for Jim to step down. Instead of looking as you do at negatives, (those are always more interesting, I know), how about being a journalist and look at one of the greatest legacies in music history. I heard so many great and memorable performances from Maestro Levine, ones that will remain in my head until I die. Those are the things that are worth remembering, not petty notes from the recent past. Norman, think of what your legacy will be, and what it should be.

    1. John says:

      Yes. Levine compiled an amazing record at the Met. He’s a singer’s conductor (all the singers I know who worked with him loved him and loved his coaching), and he transformed the Met orchestra from a pretty ordinary pit band into one of the great orchestras of the world. Outside of the met, I rank his Mahler recordings (and the live performances I’ve heard) right near or at the top. In an art form that has had its struggles of late, his loss from the performing sphere is a major loss.

  8. Hilary says:

    Levine’s miraculous comeback in 2013. Here he is in rehearsal….he seems like a nice chap.
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=wU3CEzxigRs

  9. Petros Linardos says:

    “Levine created the best – and best-paid – opera orchestra in the country.”

    That’s an understatement. James Levine turned the MET orchestra into a world class orchestra. Very few conductors in recent memory have had such a transformative effect on any traditional orchestra.

    That in his later days Levine needed to take some lessons about timely retirement from someone like Alfred Brendel is another matter.

    1. John says:

      This is time to give tribute. Sorry you had to tack on that final paragraph. We all know that.

  10. Marie Louise Renata Rodén says:

    The making of the Met? Have you perhaps forgotten about Rudolph Bing? I personally had the misfortune to visit the Met during Levine’s years from the 1970’s on. I evaluate him as a mediocre conductor and can only applaude the circumstance that he has realized that he should retire. I don’t think he should be given a lot of media coverage simply because of his long tenure.

    1. William Safford says:

      Your assessment of his conducting is very much out of the mainstream.

      1. Marie Louise Renata Rodén says:

        The mainstream has never been my cup of tea and never will be.

        1. Deborah Kraut says:

          Bing was fortunate in that it was an era of magnificent singers. But he was very much a legend in his own mind.

        2. William Safford says:

          You’ve made that apparent.

          I also have listened to the Met since the ’70s. As far as the orchestra is concerned, the changes for the better under Levine are striking. It wasn’t a disaster when he arrived and it isn’t perfect today, but the overall picture has been one of constant improvement and refinement — and without wholesale firings. That in itself speaks volumes.

          As for Bing, his post-retirement life is a truly sad story indeed.

  11. MacroV says:

    Levine should have had the good sense to know that, physically, he was no longer up to the task of being music director of the MET. It’s unfortunate that he lacked a family member or trusted advisor who could strongly influence him on this.

    No need to trash Gelb here; he’s not the musician Levine is, but he knows better than anyone here the challenges the MET has faced over the past decade with Levine not fill to fulfill the MD’s duties. As the General Manager, he would be derelict in his duty not to attend to this problem. And for those who don’t like Gelb, consider that a strong music director is probably a good check on his supposed excesses.

    Yes, Levine deserves a great tribute for all he has achieved. Though he probably had italready, back in about 1996 when in honor of his 25th anniversary the MET held a big gala performance (6+ hours, I believe) of scenes from favorite Levine operas, sung by everybody who was anybody. Hard to see how they could top that.

  12. Deborah Kraut says:

    I attended the Saturday matinee, April 9th, of “Simon B”. and listened to an aging singer and an aging conductor deliver the best of themselves to a nearly sold out audience. We came to demonstrate our respect. As many of the audience are their peers in age, we appreciated the hard work of that afternoon. The two men applauded each other as only people who have a decades-long collaboration can do. And we applauded them for their refusal to do anything less than their maximum. Sometimes, a performance is much more than young acrobatic technique. I’m sorry that you don’t appreciate this dimension to a live performance. I wonder what you would have written about Lou Gehrig’s last times at bat.

    1. Mika says:

      What bs ….two aging hacks milking what ever is left to them of the art form . Both lacking
      dignity to retire from the field after a good run ….their survival is due to a dumbed down
      audience.They didn’t serve whatever is left of the art form as much as they served their
      own warped egos .

      1. Jon H says:

        I sort of agree. I think if the public was blindfolded, most couldn’t tell the difference in interpretation between Jimmy and say, Riccardo Chailly. Jimmy should’ve taken an emeritus title at the Met, basically in 2010.
        In Fabio Luisi’s hands, sometimes things seem a little limp, but he has the kind of experience the orchestra desires.

    2. Bruce says:

      Isn’t it cool when someone’s response perfectly illustrates the very point you were trying to make? I love it when that happens.

      1. Deborah Kraut says:

        I realize that my comment provoked some irate responses.
        There is a consensus among the comments that Levine’s career had many high marks and that the tragedy is that he seemed to be the last to realize that his life’s work had ended. Just like an opera . . .

    3. Greg Hlatky says:

      Gehrig took himself out of the lineup for good when he realized he would be letting his team down if he continued to play.

      1. Brian B says:

        By the way, and pardon the digression, many do not know that Lou Gehrig was a great opera fan. He even sent in a question to the early (first Texas Company broadcast season) incarnation of the Opera Quiz not long before he died. Opera was a great comfort to him in his last days.

  13. Mark Mortimer says:

    I read somewhere that James Levine enjoys a game of Bridge. Now thats certainly something worth mastering in his retirement.

    1. William Safford says:

      There are active bridge clubs in Manhattan, for sure.

      Maybe he would be welcomed to the table by the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

  14. George says:

    I wonder what role Levine’s past had in this? Are they tired of keeping him away from certain other artists backstage? If had been an issue over the years I understand.

    1. Petros Linardos says:

      Let’s not mistake rumors for facts. Where is the evidence?

    2. John says:

      Oh. Shut. Up.

    3. MWnyc says:

      He’s in a wheelchair, for crying out loud. If backstage lechery were ever an issue with him, it surely isn’t now.

  15. Nicola Lefanu says:

    ==That in his later days Levine needed to take some lessons about timely == retirement from someone like Alfred Brendel is another matter.

    AB was wonderful with his retirement. Firstly he phased out physically demanding pieces like the Liszt Sonata, the Hammerklavier and Brahms first concerto. Then he stopped live radio broadcasting – there was a presentation at the Proms (which are always broadcast) of his last performance there. And then (quite a while in advance) he planned his farewell in Vienna with Charles Mackerars, who he’d worked with for decades.

    All very dignified.

  16. esfir ross says:

    JL must write memoir book in his retirement. Plenty of time and stories.

  17. DeeAnne Hunstein says:

    Levine has a great talent of helping singers get to the heart of the music. I have observed him in many masterclasses transform a singer’s performance from superficial to incisive.. He clearly finds great satisfaction in transferring his great musical knowledge and judgement to young artists and in doing so he can continue to have a profound effect on the musical world of the future. There is no retirement age for this kind of great teacher.

  18. Bill says:

    Two notes. Domingo at one Boccanegra shook hands with the promoter, clearly acknowledging his contribution as assistant conductor.

    The performances JL is withdrawing from all involve Renee Fleming: one Carnegie Hall concert and her last Rosenkavaliers.


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