The focus shifts to James Levine’s beat

The focus shifts to James Levine’s beat


norman lebrecht

April 03, 2016

The New York Times has published an Associated Press report by an anonymous journalist, zoning in on the physical inhibitions that affected James Levine’s conducting of Simon Boccanegra on Friday night.

Levine had clear downbeats Friday during solo portions, duets and trio but seemingly extraneous beats appears when the chorus was on stage… it was difficult to discern cues.

As of Sunday morning, the Times has yet to publish its own review. The AP report reads like a judge’s notes at a conducting competition.

There had been rumours all day Friday that Levine would not conduct the opening night, although musicians in the orchestra told us he had appeared fine at the general rehearsal. Levine conducts from a wheelchair and suffers from distracting arm tremors.

Peter Gelb had let it be known two months ago that he was prepared to ask Levine to step down, but was dissuaded after receiving medical reassurances from the conductor’s physician, details of which were promptly shared with the New York Times.

There appears to be board pressure to bring Levine’s 45-year term as Met music director to a rapid conclusion.

james levine wheelchair


  • Erich says:

    This is all so undignified. The problem is more the fear of losing potent donors loyal to Levine than offending Levine himself, who must realise his days are numbered. Only he himself could calm the situation by being magnanimous and stepping down – but he suffers from the same ‘fate’ as so many conductors: surrounded by sycophantic yes-men whose livelihoods and power depend on the artists and who are reduced to pygmies without them.

    • Patrick Shaw says:


    • Olassus says:


    • Marg says:

      Indeed. What a shame the great man cannot recognise his time has come to step down after a truly amazing conducting career. I hope Gelb isn’t forced into having to ask him to do so … That’s a no win for both.

      • Sue says:

        It’s a tough gig when a musician who has served an organization well and had great success has to call time. These people often have little else in their lives except the music and all things associated with it; any wonder they are so unwilling to surrender to retirement away from the podium, ailing and having to fill a huge void in their lives.

  • Dominic Stafford Uglow says:

    Carlos Kleiber could often just stand still during a concert. He’d rehearsed his orchestra so well that the ‘quality of his downbeat’ didn’t matter.

    Just a thought.

  • Eddie Mars says:

    A cowardly attack on a frail man, poison-penned by a low-life too spineless to write under his own name. But then – what else would we expect from the New York Slimes?

    Nowhere in this hate-ridden NYT screed can we find a word of criticism of the actual performance which Levine led. Frankly, I doubt the ability of a NYT critic to know what a downbeat is. But the analysis of this anonymous assassin ends there. Dynamics, phrasing, arch, shape, section cues, strategic vision… what would this simian simpleton know about any of these? They all go blissfully unmentioned, except for something about “sweep” (presumably the author’s own real-life profession).

    Denigrating Levine on the basis of his wheelchair (mentioned twice) is not only unacceptable at every level, but an indication of the witless failure of the reviewer to assess Levine’s musical performance. All he sees is the wheelchair, and not the man in it.

    This putrid ‘review’ is shameful. It’s just another barely-veiled attempt to get the knife into Peter Gelb on the basis of the most shallow and unacceptable pretexts – from wheelchairs to sandwiches.


    • Eddie Mars says:

      And by way of a footnote, it seems that our anonymous Sparafucile knows so very little about opera that he credited the production to the wrong director – and the Slimes had to make a grovelling retraction and correction.

      I call on the author of this disgusting attack on Levine to come out of the shadows and reveal himself. Because James Levine, in his seventies in a wheelchair, is three times the Mensch that this gutless little back-biting whelp will ever be.

    • Peter says:

      Feeling better now?
      Addressing a conductor’s fundamental physical handicap is not shameful at all. It is reasonable and necessary. Control over his body to a certain degree is absolutely essential for a conductor. If he is unfit, there must be consequences. JL doesn’t own the MET but has contractual obligations to fulfill. It seems this is at least in question now.
      Why the attempt at shaming?
      With all due respect, it’s time to step down.

      • Dominic Stafford Uglow says:

        It’s lucky Otto Klemperer isn’t around now. You lot’d have him off the podium two decades before his death…

        It’s simple. The majority of a conductor’s work is done in rehearsal, with his brain and his mouth, not with his hands.

        • Eddie Mars says:

          + 1

        • andreu says:

          -1. Bullshit

        • Peter says:

          Not in opera.

          • Eddie Mars says:

            Who are you to lay down the rules about opera? What’s your actual practical experience of opera? I mean, other than munching the “nibbles”?

            No fault or flaw has been laid at Levine’s door in terms of his performance. It just makes a few bigots uncomfortable to see a man with a disability in public.

          • Peter says:

            Eddie, please give it a break, you apparently have lost touch with reality. I haven’t laid down any rules. Generations of music professionals have done it. It’s not exactly a secret for anyone not in denial.
            JL is unable to fulfill his contractual obligations. Fortunately nobody dies in this business from a handicapped professional.
            If it was about a pilot or a surgeon, with similar loss of physical control, his career would have been terminated many many years ago.
            JL should respect himself, save his legacy and step down before it is really too late.

        • DB says:

          I know more than one orchestra that couldn’t care less about what a conductor says in rehearsal, but all the more for a clear beat. Conductors who have to explain everything because they’re unable to show it are generally disliked.

          • Eddie Mars says:

            To be fair, such “orchestras” are usually called Fireman’s Bands.

          • Bruce says:

            Eddie — with all due respect, my “fireman’s band” gets a little tired of it when our conductor says things like “be sure not to slow down the tempo here,” and then the next time we get to that spot he waves his arms slower & slower…

    • Brian says:

      To clarify, it’s not a NYT report, it’s an AP story that they picked up off the wire. And a fairly objective one if you ask me – It’s mostly a status report on the conductor’s health (which in my opinion has gotten more than enough ink over the past several years, while other aspects of his past remain unexamined).

    • La Verita says:

      Thank you for mentioning the painful reality that New York Times music critics lack basic competence to review music. In fact, at least one NYT’s music critic isn’t even a musician. The NY Times music criticism team is a clique of imperious dilettantes who promote their favorites (irrespective of ability); and of course anybody who plays modern music is forgiven any & all lack of talent.

      • Ross says:

        Excellent comment.
        Typically, a NY Times critic just promotes an agenda which has gotten far out of touch with the audience, and with reality.
        If the NYT critic likes the programming or the performer is one of his favorites, the performers will get a rave review.
        I used to subscribe, but don’t even bother reading their music reviews any more. It would be nice to see Anthony Tomassini get sacked and removed from the prominent position they have given him.

  • Olassus says:

    It should also be noted that the Met’s casting — Calleja/Domingo/Furlanetto — is six (6) years behind Covent Garden (on Warner Classics DVD).

  • Respect says:

    A realistic discussion of Domingo’s capacity to sing in the same production would have been useful. The decline is less precipitous than Levine’s, but no less real.
    The Carlos Kleiber citation is nonsensical, it’s about economy of motion and trusting the orchestra in passages where a conductor is not needed. But, good luck at getting though Verdi. Watch the Kleiber “Rosenkavalier” captured from the pit in Vienna to better grasp his point. Not every beat is rigidly clear, but it is with intent, something sadly not within Maestro Levine’s control. I think an analysis of hair work publicly is correct, the Met is the city’s largest performing arts organization and its high standards were set by Levine: many conductors were not returned because they didn’t match standards, shouldn’t Levine be held to his own standards?

    • Sue says:

      I was at a concert at the Musikverein 11 months ago with a clearly ailing Harnoncourt on the podium with Concentus. He limped slowly out from the wings leaning heavily on a walking stick. The music was excellent and so was his conducting; he could even manage one of his little pre-concert anecdotes, but it was clear his time was up and we all knew it.

  • CDH says:

    I’m not at all sure that fear of losing Levine-loyal donors is a primary consideration at this point. It may have been a few years ago. But it is increasingly clear that he should go — he misses more than he makes anyway, necessitating finding substitutes — sometimes in a hurry. Levine is the classical case of the artist who hung on too long. Any donor who is requiring his continued tenure is actually demanding more of this poor chap than he can manage, and is also deluding himself insofar as Levine is hardly a regular presence.

    Find him an honorary title, emeritus or something grander, get him out there as a guest once in a while if he is up to it, but get him replaced. It is high time he retired and reflected on his glorious career. If he wants to die in harness, he is doing the Met no favours.

    • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

      Fully agree.

    • Eddie Mars says:

      Certainly he ought to step down from the Music Director role, into some specially-created role in which he is consulted on repertoire & staffing issues without the obligation to conduct so much himself. He could then direct his energies at directing a limited number of productions (as in 1-2) each season. Tickets for those ought to be like gold-dust, if correctly marketed.

      When I first entered this profession, as a keen young staffer at ENO, my hopes of setting the world alight were somewhat dashed. I was assigned to the errand of carrying Reginald Goodall’s orchestral score of Parsifal to all his rehearsals – he was so frail at that time that he couldn’t pick it up any longer. But the performances became a benchmark for the way Wagner is conducted in Britain to this day. Levine is a living legend in very much the same way.

      It’s significant that the same people calling for Levine to be carted off are those who howled about the Met’s production of an opera about the killing of a wheelchair-bound man.

      • Peter says:

        “the way Wagner is conducted in Britain to this day”
        This innocent little sentence exposes a way of thinking I find extremely troublesome in modern days.
        So 19th century. Music does fly high above any national borders. Anybody who defines it in these borders, is essentially abusing and robbing it for its super human qualities.

        “the way Wagner is conducted in Britain to this day”. Like how? Do you follow the score from the end to the beginning? Does a good British Wagner conductor carry a portrait of Chamberlain in his underwear?

        • Anonymous says:

          This must be the definition of a snide comment. Nasty. Of course nations have schools of conducting. Goodall is a benchmark for many British conductors of Wagner. BTW, you refer to music ‘crossing borders’ then finish your post with a piece of close-minded national stereotyping.


          • Eddie Mars says:


            “Peter’s” comments have lost all credibility.

          • Peter says:

            “of course nations have schools of conducting”

            You say that, as if there were any fact to it. It’s not true. Just look around. Certainly there are particular schools, but those are around a certain musical center or a certain teacher (Musin in St. Petersburg, Swarowsky in Vienna, Panula in Helsinki, Mueller in Philadelphia), not nationally defined. There are as many local traditions as there is exchange for centuries between all relevant musical centers.
            Nation has nothing to do with it.

  • J. says:

    “It was James Levine conducting a group of chamber musicians drawn from the Met Orchestra in two different serenades, one by Schoenberg and the other by Mozart. The music was excellent, or would have been, if Levine had not been so severely hampered by his Parkinson’s disease, which has reached a level that makes conducting essentially impossible. It was a painful event: the musicians obviously know and love him, and were doing their best for him, but the performance kept pausing while he regained control of his arms and hands.”

    From here:

    (Lesser is author of an amazing book about Shostakovich’s quartets).

  • Bennie says:

    Maestro Levine should seriously consider focusing more time – if not most of his time in the future – in teaching/education, if his sole motivation to stay is to serve music.

    It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to notice the same shift in focus by all those great conductors in the past few decades during their golden age years.

  • herrera says:

    “…it was difficult to discern its cues.”

    This is so ridiculous, written anonymously for AP, who is the reporter and who cares?

    1) “difficult to discern” for a reporter? so what? Is the reporter singing? is the reporter on stage? is the reporter a chorister?

    Hell dude (if the reporter is a dude), as a member of the audience, much of the communications between the conductor and the chorus is not only “difficult to discern” but it’s none of your business! Your job is to judge the final result, not if YOU understand the cues.

    2) If indeed the cues were “difficult to discern”, how come not a word in the article that the chorus failed to come in together, failed to sing?

    Pure nonsense “reporting” with a no-name byline. Why any news organization, much less the NYT, picked up the AP story is beyond me.

  • Peter says:

    Denial is not a river in Egypt, gentlemen.

    • Eddie Mars says:

      Learn the BASICS about music before sticking your nose in.

      • CDH says:

        Not directed at you especially, but as has been pointed out above, wire service reports are traditionally not signed as they are often collaborative. So some people should learn a little about journalism before commenting on it.

        It’s a bit like classical music. The old forms are dying, and they are trying to keep them alive while simultaneously trying to adapt to changing times.

        Not sure keeping a geriatric editor, however well-beloved, on past his sell-by date (i.e one missed deadline after another) is productive. But the situation, while sharing some issues, is not quite analogous. Levine’s staying seems to me to have more to do with Levine’s desires than any consideration for all the other factors involved. Starting with reliability.

  • George says:

    Why are people so concerned with Levine’s health and yet don’t ever raise questions about his past? It’s widely know inside the industry that he has to be kept away from certain performers backstage. You’d think this would draw more scrutiny.

    • Hilary says:

      Very ominous to say the least. JL comes across nicely though.

    • Mark says:

      For crying out loud, could you lay these idiotic rumors to rest ? Unless you have actual evidence (nobody else does, but you must be a special little snowflake …)

      • David says:

        Read that…maybe if your son had been one of the victims, you wouldn’t be such a douche bad:

        • Olassus says:

          It discusses the subject but offers nothing beyond the rumor mill, except for the detail of James Levine having been arrested. That should be a matter of public record. Either he was or he wasn’t, and if he was, the offense — pedophilia or whatever — will have been be stated. No?

          • Max Grimm says:

            Ask Norman, he seems to know…
            “These are the white lies, almost amusing in their transparency. The dirty ones, the whoppers, cover up criminal acts. It is widely known on the classical circuit that a certain top conductor has a compulsion for sex with under-age boys. He has been arrested more than once and was banned for many years from a major capital. His agent, instead of sending the sick musician for counselling, ignores his perversion until it threatens to reach print — when he leaps in with the best lawyers money can buy and covers up with a trail of libel threats, glossy interviews and fake mistresses. Many people within the upper echelons of classical music are party to the deceit. The corruption of youth and truth would be tolerated in no other sector of the entertainment industry; even Hollywood retched when Michael Jackson was accused of child molesting. Yet the classical music business condones child-sex and forgives the maestro. Should his vice ever come to light (as it doubtless must), the damage to music will be incalculable. But the music business is not overly bothered by the health and welfare of music.”

          • Olassus says:

            Thanks, Max. I guess the city in question was London.

            If Levine has in the past been arrested, there should be public record of it, and, even with UK libel laws, it should be possible to freely report something that is already public.

        • Mark says:

          More rumors and innuendo. When all this nonsense first appeared, all the NYC papers sent in their most experienced, well connected crime reporters (the kind that know pretty much everybody at NYPD, the DA’s office, US Attorneys office etc. etc.) to investigate the story. I used to know one of them, and he said “We really looked into this – it’s a total [expleteive]” With all the money in the world, the evidence of arrest is impossible to eradicate completely – there are records of officers being dispatched, information heard on the police communication channel, the booking sergeant, all the witnesses at the precinct (not just the police). The source of these ugly rumors is a disgruntled opera singer – the name is well known, but I just don’t want to repeat it here.

          • David says:

            Well, if it took place in London, maybe NYPD wouldn’t know about it. You should name the opera singer who actually spread this alleged rumor because people need to get to the bottom of this. I have no clue if this is true or false but the mere possibility of it makes me want to vomit and fry the man. I have zero tolerance for this. On the other hand, if he’s innocent, his name must be forever cleaned from this suspicion. I am afraid there is rarely smoke without fire…

          • Olassus says:

            I agree with David. If you know who the singer is — and these rumors were strongest in the 1980s, when Levine I believe last performed in London and when Norman’s words quoted by Max may have been written — then let the singer speak.

            Why the reticence?

  • Respect says:

    Amen, George. It’s as if that aspect of his past is no longer relevant.

  • Mark says:

    Here is one review that suggests that the performance on Friday was actually a pretty good one.

  • herrera says:

    1) Thanks to Olassus above who provided the link to the original AP article: so the reporter is one “Ronald Blum”

    But do my eyes deceive me? He’s a sports writer (click on his name):

    It appears that 99% of his stories are about baseball. (And indeed he has written 2 articles on James Levine.)

    Hmmm… so what can one say? Reporting is reporting, whether it’s about baseball or opera? Technique is technique, whether it’s swinging a bat or waving a baton?

    Sure, I can accept that, I know plenty of sports fans who are opera lovers, and their knowledge in both areas are impressive.

    2) So Anthony Tommasini at the NYT just published a review that expands on Levine’s “loose and flailing” cueing and the tentative entrances of the orchestra and the chorus, in effect giving substance to Mr. Blum’s sketch of a review.

    3) But here’s my point, authority matters in music/performance criticism. Just because I say x is a bad conductor and Karajan says x is a bad conductor, doesn’t make my judgement correct just because Karajan and I happen to share a common judgement.

    So, sorry, Mr Blum, you may well have as good an eye and as good an ear as the chief classical music critic of the NYT, but until Mr. Tommasini starts writing for the Sports Section…

    Finally, Mr. Tommasini is not immune to the same criticism either. I’d be interested in Alex Ross’s review in the New Yorker, or interviews of Met players and singers from a professional point of view.

  • Nick says:

    Has anyone mentioned Furtwangler and his beat? His downbeat had a dozen or so possibilities for bringing the orchestra in, but somehow it worked. I believe it was John Amis who suggested on the radio programme “My Music” that the Berlin orchestra knew to enter when the third button of his waistcoat popped!

    • Peter says:

      Furtwängler! You want to know what Furtwängler did, when he realized that his body, particularly his ears, began to fail him and hinder his music making?
      Riding the train back from Berlin to his home in South Germany after a unsuccessful rehearsal that was only scheduled to try a new hearing aid, he opened the window of his personal train compartment – it was a chilly November day in 1954 – and bared his upper body to the cold wind, so he would catch a lung infection, of which he died a few weeks later. An artist’s variation on the theme of suicide.
      His doctor said to his wife in his death bed “I can’t save him, he has no will to live anymore.”

      From that perspective, your comparison is paradoxical.