The things musicians do to disguise disability

The things musicians do to disguise disability


norman lebrecht

May 22, 2016

Heather O’Donnell has written a thoughtful and disturbing piece for Van magazine on the strategies that musicians employ to mask a physical or mental disability – and how the subterfuge impacts on their fellow-musicians.


A violinist who plays with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where Levine was music director from 2004 until 2011, described the stress of working under Levine to me as “absolute fucking hell.” The orchestra members endured years of uncertainty in which the illness was treated by Levine and those close to him with denial and painfully inadequate attempts at compensation (for example, Levine began speaking more and more at rehearsals to conceal his inability to physically model the intended musical gesture). The musicians felt powerless to exert any influence on the situation.  

Read on here.

james levine wheelchair


  • CDH says:

    Another example of Levine’s selfishness. There are probably quite a lot of musicians who will be very glad to see the back of him, and who will not remember him with much affection.

    • jaxon says:

      I am not a huge fan of Levine, and even less so of his decade-long farewell tour. However, I lived in Boston during the transition between Ozawa and Levine, and I was absolutely dazzled by the work he did with the BSO. So, while I’m glad he is finally retiring, and while I was never overwhelmed by his work at the Met, I have some great memories of him in Boston to look back on.

  • JanHus says:

    Applied to Kurt Masur as well, at his last appearance with BSO, which I attended. No doubt he WAS a great and honest musician. But he ceased to be so when his physical disability made him so unfit. And I can’t believe he himself didn’t know it.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      When was Kurt Masur’s last BSO concert? I remember attending two BSO concerts under Masur in the fall of 2010 and of 2011 and being disappointed, though the public had a positive response.

      • Gaffney Feskoe says:

        I believe that Masur’s final concert with the BSO was at Tanglewood in the summer of 2014.

  • Sue says:

    Not like Harnoncourt, who in December retired gracefully from the podium with a personal letter inserted into the Musikverein program that night. Then he died 3 months later, the dear man!! What a special relationship he had with the Viennese audiences.

  • Joel Stein says:

    Oh please-I heard most of levine’s programs at the BSO during those years-there were complaints from the players about excessively long programs, from the audience about difficult music etc-for me those were special years that including well thought out programming and challenging music-I have been a subscriber for 30 plus years and those years were the best I expect I will get from the BSO.

  • Mark says:

    Levine’s recent concert with the Met orchestra at Carnegie Hall was simply phenomenal – his Tchaikovsky 6th was extraordinary and the orchestra sounded wonderful. If THAT is the result he can achieve despite his health problems, he should conduct as long as there is a twitch in his body.

  • John Kelly says:

    I was at the concert mentioned above (Ruslan Overture, Rach #2 with Kissin, and Tchaikovsky Pathetique). It is hard to watch Mr. Levine flailing around – his left arm seemingly out of control, so I found it better to just shut my eyes and listen. The results were very fine by and large. The orchestra sounded spectacular, the brasses were restrained and didn’t overwhelm the strings as is so often the case, balances were meticulous. However the performances were a little bit “careful”, I was reminded of programs conducted by Erich Leinsdorf in the 80’s. Really well done but not seat of the pants exciting.

    There is no doubt in my mind that the orchestra is having trouble following Levine. The percussion totally fluffed an entry in the finale of the concerto and the trombones and then trumpets got lost in the final climax of the Pathetique (just before the tam tam comes in). They simply gave up and stopped playing, knowing they were lost. They avoided a sonic debacle, but they missed a whole phrase or two that Tchaikovsky clearly believed important enough to write into their parts. This wouldn’t happen with the Philadelphians because they can play the Pathetique from memory. But they can’t play Boheme from memory, so it’s a bit of an occupational hazard with an opera orchestra in symphonic repertoire.

    Overall a very good concert though. But nowhere near as good as the one yesterday afternoon where David Robertson stepped in for Levine and conducted an all Strauss program with Renee Fleming singing the 4 Last Songs and other songs by Strauss. The concert kicked off with probably the best Don Juan I’ve ever heard and concluded with a Zarathustra that sounded glorious except for the wretched electronic organ at Carnegie.

    The difference in the orchestral playing was very marked – they felt secure and you could tell. Robertson (a conductor I would personally have liked to see at the NYPO) has a wonderful way of manicuring the sound of an orchestra, and the accompaniments to the songs were truly excellent. Splendid violin solos throughout and Ms Fleming can still get you in the kischkas, what a great artist!

    • Mark says:

      Well, it’s matter of taste, of course, but I cannot agree with you – for me, these two concerts have demonstrated perfectly the difference between a great conductor (Levine) and a very good one (Robertson). His Don Juan and Zarathustra were crisp, energetic but a little generic. Everyone has done their job well, but will I remember these interpretations? Probably not, but Levine’s Tchaikovsky 6th was unforgettable. Renee Fleming “phoned in” the Four Last Songs (and struggled to produce the requisite volume during “Frühling”). Things did pick up after the intermission, and she sounded wonderful.

      • Mathieu says:

        The trumpets getting lost is not a matter of taste. It is a matter of objective fact. Technical perfection is not a sufficient condition for an “extraordinary” performance, and maybe it is not necessary either. But if what John says is true, a screwup of such dimensions certainly prevent a performance from being successful, and in fact the conductor bears a huge responsibility for it. I mean, getting lost in the Pathétique is really… pathetic. It is not the Rite of Spring, for chrissakes.

      • John Kelly says:

        Completely agree about Fruhling. But I dispute that anything was “phoned in” for the remaining three songs. I am sure Fleming “warmed up” beforehand but I concur that she was in better voice as the songs progressed and in significantly better voice after intermission. Agree there.

  • Robert Holmén says:

    I suppose the big problem is the incremental nature of it. It’s not like he became disabled over night.

    Yes, someone should have intervened sooner to say, “it’s time to retire” but when was that exact moment that was the right time?

    And amidst the decline there were probably stretches of recovery that made one think, “He’s getting better.”

  • Bruce says:

    Not that Levine’s disability isn’t endlessly fascinating, but I’d be interested to hear & read about musicians who are NOT famous and what they do to disguise their disabilities: say, an orchestra member whose eyesight or hearing is starting to go, or who is dealing with arthritis or a heart problem, and can’t afford to retire right now (or maybe ever).