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James Levine, so far as I could tell, remained a blank.

December 26, 2017 by norman lebrecht

77 comments.


The critic and artistic director Joseph Horowitz has some interesting observations on the lack of personality in James Levine’s performances. He writes:

James Levine’s high reputation as a musical interpreter has always seemed to me a frustrating mystery. Whether of Verdi or Wagner, his performances evinced no lineage. And his persona, so far as I could tell, remained a blank.

When he first arrived at the Met, he whipped the orchestra and chorus into shape and refreshed the repertoire. No doubt he was a facile musician. Even as a young man, he had evidently acquired a lot of repertoire and practical experience. His readings were typically intense, massive, and loud, sometimes to the point of brashness. In subsequent decades, he mellowed. But I never heard from Levine much evidence of emotional variety or depth. According to my experience, he had little capacity to organize a long stretch of music, or to powerfully shape a climax or pregnant phrase. He did not produce a sonic signature – as Furtwangler and Krips did; as Gergiev and Muti do. He did not possess an ear for color or texture….

Read on here.

I certainly felt much the same about Levine’s performances of symphonic repertoire. It’s refreshing to read this view from a former NY Times critic since the Times has barely permitted reasoned criticism of Levine’s conducting.

 

 


Comments (77)

  1. Anon says:

    This is nonsense, and typical of NYT reviews.

    1. Sue says:

      Kick a man when he is down. Nice.

      1. EricB says:

        Exactly what I thought, too…

    2. Martain Smith says:

      Forget NYT – I would!
      But indeed, compare JL’s work with others of his generation or earlier – I’m thinking studio and/or live recordings.

      Nothing to do with his private “deeds” – but “great” in the way a Kempe, Carlos Kleiber, Abbado..etc. were in their individual niches were – NOOOOOO – I don’t think so!

    3. Mike C says:

      Horowitz is spouting convenient nonsense.

      Beethoven Missa Solemnis 1991 with Vienna Philharmonic; Otello also with Scotto and Domingo (1978?). In both “pregnant phrases” and “powerful climaxes” abound. Try the string accompaniment to Scotto’s “Canzona del Salice” in Act IV of the latter. In the former try the orchestral balancing in the Credo immediately before the “Et Ressurexit ” male chorus or the careful interplay of wind and brass at the start of Moll’s “Agnus Dei” .

      The projection of one’s provenance is no guarantee of preferable greatness in a work; what was Richter’s lineage in the Schubert B Flat? Franz Schreker (who knew his father)? Of course not. Similarlly Richter’s unique projection Pagodes from Estampes has nothing to do with lineage. Volodos is not Catalan but have you heard his Mompou?

      I am with Webster Young on this but I think he speaks with greater authority form experience of JL

  2. David A. Boxwell says:

    It’s a topsy-turvy world when Krips is considered a more distinctive conductor and better musician than Levine. As if the latter hadn’t really mattered all these decades. . .

  3. Mark Henriksen says:

    And the pile on begins…

  4. La Verita says:

    Well, the fact that Joseph Horowitz takes himself so seriously as a critic (or that anyone else does) is also a mystery. His constant “so-and-so doesn’t deserve his fame” – followed by a river of negativity– gets awfully tiresome after a while. Joe, step out into the sunshine, increase your vitamin D dosage, and smell the roses.

    1. steven holloway says:

      Odd. In the article, he criticizes one musician and praises eleven others. Methinks you’re just miffed because he takes a negative view of one of your pets. The comments on such posts as this seem invariably to turn into the same sort of mix of loopy fan-club posts one finds on YouTube. More often than not, one can detect that the favourite in question is actually the first one they heard — a common and tedious syndrome. Horowitz has long done fine work — see Conversations with Arrau — and he simply offers a viewpoint for consideration. Disagree by all means, but a personal attack is just silly.

      1. John Borstlap says:

        Agreed entirely. Horowitz is one of those serious critics of which there are far not enough. He is one of the critics who has no reason to fear that he may get into the next edition of Slonimsky’s “Lexicon of Musical Invective” and thus says what he thinks.

        1. Mark Henriksen says:

          Maybe, but the timing stinks.

  5. Been Here Before says:

    It’s easy to kick the dog when he is down… (and btw, I have never been a Levine fan).

    1. harold braun says:

      Agree wholehaertedly!

  6. Robert Holmén says:

    ” He did not produce a sonic signature – as Furtwangler and Krips did; as Gergiev and Muti do”

    It seems he is wanting a conductor to make everything sound the same. A “sonic signature.”

  7. Robert Roy says:

    The very first cheque I ever wrote was for Levine’s Saint-Saens ‘Organ’ Symphony coupled with the Dukas ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’. A truly marvellous disc that I treasure to this day. The string playing of the Berliner Philharmoniker in the slow movement of the Saint-Saens is truly glorious.

    He must have had SOMETHING to make the Berliner Philharmoniker play that way!

    1. Steve P says:

      A great disc! Sounds like Levine may be a disposable person, but I can’t say I haven’t enjoyed his music-making with top tier groups.

      1. Steve P says:

        Despicable*

        1. Josh Williams says:

          Agreed!

      2. pooroperaman says:

        No, you were right the first time, Steve. Since Levine has been accused of crimes which are thought now to be beyond the pale, he has indeed become a ‘disposable’ man, on whom it is suddenly acceptable to vent any bile that anyone feels in need of expelling.

        That means that you can accuse him of anything you like, whether related to the things he’s accused of or not, and the rest of the echo chamber will cheer you on.

        So let’s make one thing clear: Levine, like Dutoit, is a great conductor, something which not only remains the case, regardless of the results of the enquiries against him, but is absolutely irrelevant to them.

        1. Saxon Broken says:

          I think I disagree. Dutoit is a great conductor, at least in the French repertoire (is there anyone consistently better). James Levine is a good solid conductor but rarely produces great performances. Levine’s best contribution is in orchestra building (both at the Met and in Boston), but his conducting is rarely especially interesting.

          The person I think he is most similar to in terms of musical output is Maazel. Maazel also had a formidable reputation at the time, but his star seems to have faded over the years: neither Levine nor Mahler have produced many “must have” recordings in the standard repertoire. Always solid and competently executed but never great or particularly interesting.

          1. Papageno says:

            Can’t agree with you there. For instance, Lorin Maazel’s recording of Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” with the Cleveland Orchestra is the best on the market, hands down. Ditto for his recording of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” with the same orchestra.

            Likewise, Maestro Levine’s recording of Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony is also one the best recordings of the work available. And his Schumann with Berlin is second to none.

        2. Sharon says:

          Anyone and everyone is “disposable” in a bureaucracy, and a professional opera company is certainly a bureaucracy. Part of the sociologic definition of bureaucracy is that the positions matter but they can be filled interchangeably.

  8. torinese says:

    Have to say I don’t understand Horowitz on this. Levine’s best Wagner performances were amazing, and if they declined in the years of his health struggles and over-medication, I would still insist that the decline was steeper on the occasions Maazel, Gergiev, and Luisi took over the operas Levine had led for years. Not so when Barenboim did a run of Tristans, in my view – those performances had fleetness but still enough weight, and a beautiful sense of direction, and I thought the playing was first rate – there was a feeling of instrumental virtuosity as a direct expression of love-fever. (It might also be relevant to that comparison that Tristan came back into the Met repertory at a time when Levine was already in troubled phsyical condition.) Gatti’s Parsifal was convincing – though so prevailingly muted and meditative that I still missed Levine’s readings (especially in the Vickers-Ludwig and Vickers-Rysanek runs. And the idea that he had no ear for sonority (in the full version of Horowitz’s post) strikes me as plain nonsense. The balance of timbre against timbre and theme against theme – even if you weren’t on board with what he had to say – was so strongly defined, consistently delineated, and different from what “just happens,” that there is absolutely no way they were achieved other than by a conductor with a strong “ear for sonority.”

    FWIW I sat with a long list of musician friends in a lot of these performances, and for that matter a lot of others at the Met over the same years, and had three of those rare experiences of seeing unexpected tears streaming down faces – just plain flowing, not the “moist eye” kind but outright weeping – and all three were on Levine Wagner nights. One at climax of Wotan’s farewell, on at middle-to-end of Meistersinger quintet, and one already at the last return of the Preislied theme in the Meistersinger **overture** (that really surprised me). Of course, Wagner may have had more to do with this than anybody else, but still…..

    1. Yes Addison says:

      Torinese, first of all, I respect that you actually say things of substance in making a case for Levine, and contrasting him with other conductors, rather than reciting CAMI talking points.

      However, while there may be a well-known conductor whose Wagner I find less interesting than Levine’s, one isn’t coming to mind. I enjoyed many of his performances of other composers, before his conditions began to make him a liability even in pieces that once had been specialties (such as the 2013 Falstaff), but without exception I found his Wagner boneless, lifeless, and seemingly endless. I felt I was getting a demonstration of someone’s “love” for a composer, and no thoughts or ideas were there with the love, only a painstaking recreation of a postwar Austro-German style that wasn’t in the conductor’s own blood.

      When his grip on Met Wagner loosened, and we started to get other points of view, it was great news for me. When those Schenk productions that reflected his dull visual taste started to get their farewell laps one by one, it was more good news.

      Now off to read Horowitz in entirety. I suspect I’ll agree with him more than I disagree. I do lean toward your view on the sonority issue. This is the one thing I will say for Levine’s Wagner. Besides that it was technically well executed. It always sounded very beautiful. The problem was, any short excerpt could stand for the whole thing.

      1. torinese says:

        Fair enough, Addison – though I do wonder when you started hearing those performances. I think the best ones were probably in the 70s and 80s, which isn’t exactly a point in Levine’s favor. But if it was a painstaking reconstruction of a postwar Austrian-German style – whose? Böhm? Karajan? Knappertsbusch? Kempe? Krips? Krauss? I barely hear enough similarities in those to feel comfortable speaking of “a” style, and I’m not sure I hear Levine as a re-creation of any.

        Dangerous in any case to try to pin down “thoughts or ideas” in an interpretation, beyond such things as the “thought” that a passage should go faster or the “idea” that the woodwinds should play shorter staccatos, or that it’s too soon for a climax here, or that the next change should sound interruptive instead of continuative, etc. I like Mravinsky’s line – “an act of music making is convincing or not,” or something like that. What I think tends to happen is that the listener who is convinced then associates that conviction with *his or her* ideas of what’s in the music – while the listener who isn’t convinced hears a lack of ideas.

        That isn’t to say the conductor doesn’t have specific ideas, just that i’m not sure they’re reliably identifiable. But if I had to try to describe a general concept behind Levine’s Wagner style, it would be something like this: an assumption that firmly etched, tonally filled-out orchestral lines, proceeding at generally slow tempos but with close control against unintentional lingering or slackness, are usually the best path to impactful arrival at the destinations Wagner prepares through long accumulation. (Obvious short example: the slow build of the music between the Norns’ disappearance and the emergence of Siegfried and Brünnhilde from the cave. Longer example: from Sieglinde falling asleep to the interruptive turnaround of Brünnhilde’s intentions, where the same small group of musical ideas is wound to an almost unbearable tension before breaking.) That’s not the whole of Wagner, but it is something he did often, and that in my opinion Levine guided exceptionally well.

        To your question of a major conductor *less* interesting in Wagner – maybe the featureless cantabile of Muti’s Scala Ring? (Confession, I didn’t make it all the way through that, so maybe it got better….)

  9. Tom Vendetti says:

    This from the author of Understanding Toscanini? I witnessed the brilliant years that Levine rebuilt the BSO. Listen to the old concerts.

    1. David Demers says:

      I wonder if Horowitz ever heard Levine’s interpretation of the Brahms Requiem? I heard it live with the BSO both at Symphony Hall and at Tanglewood. The man is genius personified. Not to mention his work with the Met Orchestra, which is matchless to this day. These recent accusations from frustrated third rate “musicians” are merely a blip on Levine’s radar, as are those of Maestro Dutoit.

  10. Michael Endres says:

    I found the article by Joseph Horowitz interesting.
    For example when comparing with the underrated Joseph Krips in Mozart symphonies .
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qgpnZQeyDoU
    Levine’s reading seems to offer very few “Zwischentoene”, just pleasant high gloss playing from the VPO.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGSguZziJ0Q
    And then there was this Parsifal I sat through in Bayreuth…it took the meaning of ‘long’ to new heights. Compared to the equally slow Knappertsbusch, which I knew from LPs, there was a noticeable lack of cohesion and sense for proportions. Again the orchestra and singers were excellent, but the overall experience was far from memorable ( apart from these excruciatingly uncomfortable chairs and the sweltering 32 Celsius ).

    But lets forget Parsifal: his Rhapsody in Blue with the CSO is superb…he really nailed that one. And when accompanying Kathleen Battle in the 80ies his understated groove was fabulous.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MTRQ0WzGbm0

    So I pick my cherries from his vast output and let old Krips do those Mozart symphonies…

    1. Minutewaltz says:

      Sorry, this is off topic but are you the same Michael Endres that plays Weber so divinely?

      1. Michael Endres says:

        Harrumph…it’s off topic…but I am dedicating this very kind compliment to my late teacher Peter Feuchtwanger who started the Weber spark and taught me all of this wonderful repertoire.

        1. Minutewaltz says:

          If I feel depressed I listen to your recording of Grande Polonaise and Invitation to the Dance and immediately I feel better.

          1. Michael Endres says:

            In that case it was well worth recording these works !
            My musical prozac is: allofbach.com

  11. Bill Ecker says:

    The way I looked at a Levine performance was music as I expect to hear it and I heard him conduct several hundred times in my life. He was always faithful to the score and the composers’ intent. Solti and Szell were very much the same and frankly, I prefer it that way.

    Muti was listed as an example of a conductor with his own signature, frankly, he runs hot and cold. I heard the slowest La Traviata performance one could imagine in Salzburg 20 or so years ago, the singers were all struggling to slow everything they have always been taught down; it was unreasonable and it killed the performance. (Knappertsbusch pulled that stunt in his Westminster recording of Fidelio.) The next day he conducted the Vienna Phil in a performance of Babi Yar at a breakneck speed. Neither effort to the composer’s markings. I would much preferred Levine in either of those performances as the direction would have been to the composer’s wishes and as I expected.

    I love to hear new things in music, new passages I neglected to concentrate on before etc. but I frankly don’t want to hear a conductor shred what is written in the score. Ok, off my soap box.

    1. Muse says:

      The damage that Muti has done to the “sonic signature” in Chicago is unforgivable. (everything pppp on a stage with horrible acoustic that does not carry sound into the hall at all)

      1. Bill Ecker says:

        I know several members of the CSO and they love Muti. The orchestra as a whole could not wait for Dashing Danny’s contract to expire. That said, I’ve heard good and bad with him over the years, but those two episodes in Salzburg remain ingrained in my mind. As an aside, went to the Tucker Gala a few weeks ago and Nicola Luisotti the SF Opera MD was conducting. Had to laugh, he’s a Muti clone; his mannerisms and stage business is a Muti homage.

        1. Barry says:

          It’s long been my impression that Muti is nearly universally loved by the Orchestra musicians he works with regularly (I started attending classical concerts in Philadelphia during Muti’s tenure).

          But musicians and listeners aren’t looking for the same things from a conductor and I’ve also found Muti to run hot and cold. I’m basing this mainly on his orchestral conducting; not opera.

          I’ve heard stunningly dull performances of, for instance, Schubert’s 9th or the finale of Brahms’ 2nd led by Muti. I sometimes get the feeling he’s so concerned about not doing anything showy or vulgar that he goes too far in the other direction and saps the life from the music. But then he’ll surprise me with a great Bruckner 6th when I least expect it.

        2. Muse says:

          my impression has been that the CSO musicians have mixed feelings on Muti but i would rather preserve my anonymity than die on this hill

          1. Barry says:

            I have no inside knowledge. I’m just going on quotes I’ve read over the years from musicians in the various orchestras he’s worked. I’ve never read anything but what I would call borderline worshipful references by these musicians about Muti.

            As I’ve said, it’s not an opinion I share. But I don’t work with the guy.

          2. Saxon Broken says:

            I would not take the public statements of orchestral musicians too seriously. They invariably make nice comments about their current chief conductor: they have to carry-on working with the person, and bad remarks are likely to affect their career.

    2. herrera says:

      There are also those who would blame Muti for ruining the Philadelphia sound.

      Yet isn’t it rather exaggerated to blame Muti for everything, from ruining the Chicago sound to the Philadelphia sound?

      Did Abbado and Rattle ruin the Berlin sound?

      Or is it the case that the so-called “Berlin” sound or “Chicago” or “Philadelphia” sound is really just the “Karajan” or “Solti” or “Ormandy” sound, each of which needs to be evolved?

      1. herrera says:

        My personal response is that no one — not Abbado, not Rattle, not Muti — wants to be just the care keeper of their predecessor’s orchestra. Who wants to be the custodian of someone else’s legacy?

        Whoever succeeds Muti will have their own idea of what the orchestra should sound like.

        Nézet-Séguin has said that he wants to bring back the old Philadelphia sound. So be it.

        1. Barry says:

          I have to say after reading that line on Nezet-Seguin wanting to bring back the old Philadelphia sound that he succeeds to the utmost in that endeavor when he puts his mind to it; which is generally when he’s conducting Russian Romantic music.
          I saw him lead a Tchaikovsky program that included the fifth symphony a couple seasons ago and I could have sworn that if I closed my eyes and didn’t know what year it was, it was Ormandy conducting.

          I also recall thinking during the 90s that the Orchestra’s overall sound was warmer and fuller after Sawallisch took over for Muti. He didn’t take the Orchestra all the way back to the Ormandy sound like Nezet-Seguin does at times, but he moved it in that direction.

          1. John Borstlap says:

            Interestingly, there seems to be a general longing for the authentic music making of orchestras before WWII, i.e. from the time when they did much less touring and when conductors were more or less ‘rooted’ at the orchestra’s location, instead of the current fashion of conductors flying all over the globe to work with so many different orchestras. The performance standards having gone up so much have been paid with the erosion of character and local sound, a sort of orchestral globalization. Learning from the old recordings may be very useful, and offer some invaluable benefits.

            Some years ago there was the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra in London, which was a restoration of the Queen’s Hall Orchestra that was active around 1900. The original instruments, which had been stored away, were used again for live concerts and recordings, and they were different from the modern instruments which are louder, fuller, and produce thicker sound. It was a very interesting initiative by John Boyden, the ex-recording producer. But the orchestra seems to have been disappeared again, which is regrettable since it was a typical attempt at recovering authentic music making.

  12. Nigel Goldberg says:

    I have to be suspicious when someone uses an expression like ‘sonic signature’, really.

  13. Claude Cymerman says:

    Before Levine, the Met Orchestra was an average pit orchestra, with many doses of sloppiness.
    Levine built and raised that orchestra to a first rate unit. Their non-operatic symphonic performances are splendid. The Met Orchestra fares well among the great world orchestras, in the pit as well than on stage. I have witnessed that progression and improvements under James Levine leadership.
    Objections about ‘the man’ is a separate and painful issue, for sure, but shouldn’t suddenly erase his artistic contributions.

  14. william osborne says:

    I hope that when the smoke clears and the furor dies down, a good writer will look at the historical context that shaped Levine as a young. This would include two key points. The first would be the sexual mores of the decade before the AIDs epidemic erupted. Things were very different then. The second is the way New York, and especially its music industry, obsessively advances its favorite sons (as it still does.)

    The result was that Levine was massively promoted before he had the maturity to handle the power and prestige he was given. He quickly arrived in a world where he could do whatever he wanted, but without the experience to use his power over others sensibly. Given the extremely open sexual culture of the 70s, the stage was set for an abuse of power.

    Sadly, this idea of finding a young man and promoting him as the “genius seed” of community has not abated, and is still especially strong in Europe where it is closely connected to vague concepts of cultural nationalism. The correlations between Levine and theHans-Jürgen von Bose scandal are striking. An article showing the parallels might give the music industry some insights and lead to a more sensible and less rushed approach to how young artists are developed.

  15. Sharon says:

    I am not in the arts scene but I agree. I believe however, that at least in the United States the women’s movement was more important to changing the sexual mores, especially in the workplace, than AIDS. Concepts about harassment pertaining to unequal sexual relationships or that there is no such thing as truly consensual sex whenever there is an inequality of professional or economic power, status, or authority in a relationship developed out of the women’s movement and women moving into predominantly male fields.
    This concept of sexual harassment was not widely shared until the 1980s. Previously, professional women were largely restricted to what were then women’s dominated fields such as teaching, social work, or nursing where they were generally one of a large pool of women who interacted minimally with male coworkers in their day to day work. If a woman in the business sector wanted to avoid harrassment she was stuck in a low paid typing or clerical job where she would be surrounded by a “pool” of other women and could not advance. I understand it is still this way in the former Soviet Union although they have had almost total participation of women in the workforce for many years.
    For women who worked one on one with men like executive secretaries, business executives, in the performing arts, or in academia sexual harassment was considered a legitimate price paid for a woman to advance up the ladder.
    Of course, in those fields, such as the arts, where it was easier to be more or less openly gay, the same attitudes applied to gay relationships as well.
    Changing attitudes towards sexual harassment are as large part of the reason why age of consent laws were raised. Previously it was considered coercion i.e. statutory rape, only if the party was considered to be too young to understand what sex was. Now the law is taking into consideration the age where a person would still likely feel coerced because there would necessarily be an unequal power relationship because of the young age of one of the parties .
    Although by his mid fifties Levine continually said in interviews that he had developed an attitude of gratitude and attributed much of his success to being lucky enough to meet the right mentors and make the right contacts, if his accusers were to be believed he was somewhat more arrogant when he was younger. With everyone continually lauding him it is certainly understandable.
    It would be easy in such a situation not to see that the younger person one fancies might cooperate mainly because he felt coerced because of concerns about career advancement rather than genuine desire. Also if when a person is very focused on satisfying strong physical needs or wants, that is, when he is in an addiction mode, one has tunnel vision in gratifying that desire, one frequently just assumes (if any thought is given to it at all) that others would surely want what one wants, and it is hard to have empathy for others who might be affected or feel differently.
    Pseudo Freudian attitudes common in the swinging sixties about sexual repression blocking creativity also made it easy to rationalize behavior i.e. that he was “helping” or “teaching” his students or acolytes.
    However, as I have said in other posts, the reason is not the excuse. Everyone has the obligation to respect and consider the feelings of others even in situations where it might be more difficult to do so and avoid creating, even indirectly, an atmosphere of intimidation.
    His victims were traumatized. I would be very interested in knowing what Ashok Pai is doing today and if he blames Levine for not succeeding in music.
    On the other hand Levine is an older physically challenged man who as far as we know has not engaged in this conduct for at least the last twenty years.
    Wouldn’t this situation make a great academic article “Defining Sexual Harrassment in the Context of Changing Social Values–The Case of James Levine”?

    1. William Osborne says:

      It’s true that the women’s movement had created major changes in sexual mores by the 80s, but in this case I was thinking mostly of the gay community whose mores were strongly altered after epidemic hit.

      1. Sharon says:

        The issue concerning Levine is not whether or not he physically assaulted anyone as Bose was accused of. It is pretty clear that he did not.
        The issue is one of power. Did Levine favor those with whom he and sex and possibly punish those who refused, with regard to jobs, playing and solo opportunities, promotions, letters of reference etc. Did he create an atmosphere of intimidation and coercion among those who were professionally dependent on him because of these actions and then lie about it to the MET? In other words, did he sexually harass in professional situations and then try to cover it up?
        Apart from making it easier for Levine to rationalize his behavior the sexual revolution of the seventies in the gay world did not have a lot to do with this, in my opinion. For example Rudolph Nureyev was considered promiscuous even by the standards of the gay world in the seventies and eighties. At least once he tried to professionally groom a young man to whom he was attracted. Yet he was never accused of sexually harassing anyone in any institution over which he had any control, for ex. the French National Ballet where he was artistic director for over five years, or using professional favors and appointments as rewards or punishments for those who sexually accepted or rejected him, at least in an institutional or artistic company context.
        Today I read an article in The Economist concerning changing attitudes towards sexual harassment which questions whether attitudes are permanently changing with regard to the tolerance of sexual harrassment or whether all the “Me Too” stuff is just a flash in the pan and things will soon return to business as usual. See my previous comment.
        As I continue to read and write on these blogs I continually feel more and more sympathetic to Levine although I am still very ambivalent. I suspect that many others, including the Met board and management feel likewise. Will the public and the Met board ultimately feel that the Levine’s trial in the press and the internet blogs is punishment enough for this older disabled man who has not been involved, as far as we know, in any sort of impropriety and harassment for at least 20 years?
        I agree with those who say that the real solutions is changes in institutions and institutional controls and that Levine’s lack of experience in being in management situations may have been part of the issue. As a New York State Civil servant (a psychiatric nurse in a state hospital) I am required to classes on sexual harassment, internal controls, confidentiality, the use and abuse of government funds, and fraudulent reporting, among other classes, which detail exactly what is forbidden and how I must approach and deal with certain situations based on detailed policies that are clearly written and publicly available. We must take the same classes EACH YEAR to continually remind ourselves about the organizations’ policies. It might behoove the Met to do something similar for their managers if not for everybody rather than just assume that people know how to stay out of trouble just because they apprenticed under someone or have an arts management degree.

        1. Sharon says:

          Joseph Volpe was the general manager of the Met for a number of years while Levine was a new music director. In Volpe’s memoirs he alludes to Levine’s lack of management experience. I forget the details but I remember that he tells an anecdote that in the pre cell phone days Levine was traveling and left no forwarding phone number. Something unexpected happened concerning an upcoming performance and Levine had to make a decision but he could not be reached. Someone else made the decision and it was incorrect. Since then Levine learned that he had to always leave a way for the Met to contact him!

  16. Yi Peng Li says:

    I am wondering if this is an example of critics acknowledging that many modern artists have a lack of substance in their music-making. I don’t think this assessment is just applicable to Levine, but I am wondering if more people will disown the mediocre music-making of recent decades.

    1. M2N2K says:

      In any decade – recent ones are no exception – there has always been more “mediocre music-making” than great music-making. If anything, these recent decades have been experiencing more good music-making (that is, between mediocre and great) than ever before.

      1. John Borstlap says:

        I wonder how such thing could be assessed. No doubt every era has its ups and downs and its continuous mainstream of so-so, but it is also my impression that musical substance in performance has decreased. But how can we know that this is not merely the result of getting older and thus, better at judging? And then, what do we exactly mean by ‘musical substance’? Intensity of expression? Emotional abandon? But every type of music has its own measure of these things and some cannot bear anything of it. The only guide here is our own gut feeling and subjective impressions. Mine is that there is much more technical prowess and virtuosity today, and that sometimes rather mediocre run-of-the-mill conductors have, for some reason, a ‘peak’ in their abilities and suddenly raise above their average level in a performance, people are not machines, after all.

        It is possible, however, to sense musical/emotional authenticity in a performance, but that also depends heavily upon the music itself. The longer your experience with performances, the more you learn to hear and to feel, but again: that is also a distorting view upon history.

        Yet, there are recordings of performers from decennia ago which seem to indicate that musical authenticity was, in former times, in better shape: people were, in general, just more charcacteristic, more independent, more colourful, lived slower, and orchestras had much more a specific local sound because they hardly ever toured.

        1. M2N2K says:

          Well, if you know that “musical substance has decreased” even though you have no idea what your own definition of “musical substance” is, then arguing with such “logic” is useless unless and until you reach an understanding with yourself.

          1. John Borstlap says:

            It is not about ‘understanding oneself’ or ‘logic’, but about the awareness that such things cannot be assessed objectively because of their nature. Claiming some objective standard where there cannot be one, is misunderstanding the issue. While impressions and observations about performance are important, it is also important to not forget the nature of the territory.

          2. M2N2K says:

            Who is forgetting? Of course our opinions are predominantly subjective, but nevertheless they do have value the amount of which is dependent on relevant knowledge and personal qualities of the person who is doing the opining. In this case, my argument is actually being supported by your own statements in several of your earlier comments.

  17. Mark Mortimer says:

    James Levine is also a very fine piano accompanist as alluded to in this article. Interesting how he compares JL to Leonard Hokanson unfavourably in this capacity. I knew Hokanson at Indiana University- a nasty & unpleasant man with clear prejudices as to what type of pianist he thought was good at piano accompaniment

  18. Not a Fan of JH says:

    Horowitz’ Furtwangler fetish borders on the obsessive. He trots old Wilhelm out at every opportunity and every interpreter comes up short according to Joseph. I stopped reading early on.

  19. Brian B says:

    Have you ever heard Horowitz lecture? I have numerous times. Talk about a blank persona. Painful to see and hear. Glass houses, Joseph.

    1. Brian Bell says:

      Actually, I have found his knowledge and thoughts on Seidl, Dvorak, Higginson and others to be insightful.

    2. Brian Bell says:

      I disagree. Horowitz on Seidl, Higginson and others offers a unique viewpoint.

  20. Marcus Clayton says:

    Personally, I think it is high time for Levine to go, once and for all.
    Levine has been at the Met far too long, and has hogged much of the repertoire for years.
    I was such a pleasure to hear Parsifal with Daniele Gatti back in 2013 and the Ring cycle with Fabio Luisi, for example.
    Levine has had no artistic growth at the Met whatsoever during his time there.
    The Met can and will function fine without him, as has been proven time and again in recent seasons.
    This looks like a good time for the Met to let him go altogether.
    It is time for a new era.
    Bring on Yannick!!!!!!!!

    1. Mark says:

      Actually, Levine’s interpretive ideas have only deepened and grew more interesting with age. Gatti’s Parsifal was OK, but Luisi’s Wagner was efficient and eminently forgettable (and that generally describes his style). And Yannick is an overhyped mediocrity with no real understanding of opera (the Dudamel of the East Coast). Talents of Levine’s caliber are extremely rare.

      1. M2N2K says:

        Generally, I do agree with three of your four sentences here, but you may be underestimating both Nezet-Seguin and Gustavo.

        1. Willi Philips says:

          Definitely underestimating Dudamel and Nezet-Seguin. Both are young, but are very qualified interpreters of a broad repertory of music. Sorry, can’t agree with you.

        2. Mark says:

          I’d like to hope you are right re: YNS. So far, the performances he’s led at the Met have been fast and glib with a tendency for superficial brilliance. The singers I’ve spoken to complain that he doesn’t understand them (and vocal music in general) very well.

          1. M2N2K says:

            To be honest, my positive impression of YNS is based mostly on his symphonic performances because I have not heard much of his operatic work.

  21. Willi Philips says:

    Levine’s interpretive stamp a ‘blank?’ That’s a laugh and a half. His interpretations seem upon initial hearing to be almost too careful and precise, but upon rehearing, they clearly have their individual character and enthusiasm and each are distinctive in their own way.

    To say this about Levine? HA! What dare you say about Haitink, the most overrecorded and inadequate conductor of our time, seemingly incapable of making any performance incandesce, let alone put a personal stamp on something called interpretation. And the Junior Haitinks behind him, Kurt Masur and Herbert Blomstedt? All musical, literate, but all devoid of interpretive character. These are the three chef Dirigenten to whom you should point the finger about interpretive null.

  22. one of many jims says:

    While giving Levine full credit for rescuing the Boston Symphony from the ennui it had fallen into after too many years of Ozawa I was frequently dissatisfied with his actual performances here in Boston. Don’t get me wrong. He conducted many really wonderful performances and all of his concerts were extremely well played, however I found that the performances which I was most impressed with were the ones of big pieces of music which utilized the talents of soloists and/or the Tanglewood Chorus. Pieces where other people contributed to the end result. When Levine was on his own, particularly with items from the standard repertoire such as the Schubert 9th(or whatever it’s called these days), I often found myself admiring the execution, but unmoved by the result. I joked that Levine loved the music in the same way that a math whiz at MIT loves a good equation. I often admired his performances, but was rarely moved by them.
    I also quite consistently found Levine’s concerts to be too loud. I’ve no objection to plenty of volume when the music demands it, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I don’t think Levine ever understood or mastered the acoustics of Symphony Hall. The music sometimes took on that forced, unnuanced quality that you get if you crank the volume on your speakers louder than they can handle. I had never before had the experience at a BSO concert of wanting to cover my ears. Of course it would bring the audience to it’s feet. Loud noises do that.
    For me, it was always a relief to hear a guest conductor, such as Sir Colin Davis, who understood Symphony Hall.
    And I’m happy to report that Mr. Nelsons has had no problem adjusting to the Hall.

    1. Herr Doktor says:

      I agree, and then some. I always called Levine “King of the Phrase.” He does great phrases, but never was able to string them together into a coherent interpretation that told a story and moved me. I was VERY happy when he left. And I agree with you about Nelsons.

      BTW, that Levine performance of Schubert’s 9th that you referenced is the straw that broke the camel’s back in the case of my husband. It was so awful that he said after that concert, “I’m never going to another James Levine concert again.” And he didn’t.

  23. Jaime Herrera says:

    Too many comments!

  24. Paul c rey says:

    I have always admired james Levine, it was always comforting to hear an opera on Saturday nights with him at the rostrum,I try always to listen to opera from the met and I hope one day to see an actual live performance there, it is my ultimate goal to do just that, although probably alas it won’t be james Levine conducting or directing the music.

  25. Saxon Broken says:

    On a professional basis, I always thought Levine was most similar to Maazel. Both were orchestra builders, and both were competent on the podium at producing a solid performance from the orchestra. Neither produced much that was more than merely very competent: the musical performances somehow lack personality or long-term interest.

  26. Webster Young says:

    I have heard Levine live a hundred times and I never heard a performance that did not yield amazing clarity and a great dramatic energy from the orchestra. Further, nothing was ever eccentric and everything was absolutely musically appropriate. He executed everything well, followed musical logic, and stayed out of the way except to serve the composer with brilliance. For me, one could listen to that always. I never once asked, “Why does the orchestra not have more personality?” I am one musician and opera composer who does not agree with Horowitz’s concern.


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