James Levine: The Cami connection

James Levine: The Cami connection


norman lebrecht

December 20, 2017

The former Met music director has only ever had one manager. He was Ronald Wilford, the Machiavelli at the heart of Columbia Artists Management Inc, the world’s largest classical agency. Wilford personally controlled the careers of more than 100 conductors, but one was his idol – Herbert von Karajan – and three were closer to him than the rest.

Those three were Seiji Ozawa, Andre Previn and James Levine.

Wilford plotted their destinies, negotiated their contracts and knew whatever went on in their lives. If there were secrets, Wilford knew where they were buried. He may have buried them himself. Or got someone like Peter Gelb, his gofer, to do so.

Since the exposure of allegations that have expelled Levine from the Met, it has been widely imputed that Wilford may have been involved in concealing or suppressing aspects of Levine’s personal life. That may be the case. Or it may not. Levine, who is pathologically non-confrontational, would rely on Wilford to take up cudgels and do other unpleasant tasks on his behalf.

But in later years there was a growing distance between the sorcerer and his apprentice. Wilford was not keen on Levine’s desire to be music director in Boston, though he fixed the contract when his client requested it. ‘Jimmy does what Jimmy wants,’ Wilford would say.

When Wilford died, Levine failed to show up for his memorial event at the Richard Rodgers Theater. He was in rehearsal, it was said, but he could have made a brief appearance or sent a message that showed some emotion. The best he managed to say was: ‘He became the only manager I ever had, and even better, one of my most beloved friends.’

Any future Levine biographer must examine the erosion of the Wilford relationship.




  • Been Here Before says:

    Let the dead rest in peace.

    Without matter of what he knew or didn’t know, Wilford can’t defend himself anymore. This is why it is not right to drag his name into the Levine mess.

    Let the bygones be bygones. Go after the living – there are still a plenty to pursue.

    • Save the MET says:

      Nah, Wilford is one of the reasons the classical music business is so screwed up today. For instance he and his lackey Gelb were involved in an extortion scheme on behalf of von Karajan. Von Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic videos were pedaled by Gelb at Wilford’s behest as bait for B Phil tours to various countries. Their cultural ministries were told if they didn’t take the videos in country and sell them in their record stores, the tours would not happen. Wilford and von K with the help of ‘Lil Pete would pocket the profits and the Berlin Philharmonic members were cut out. It eventually came to a head with a visit by Wilford and Gelb to Berlin where the Philharmonic pressed charges. The result was swept under the carpet, but the musicians finally were paid something. The public has the right to know about these things. A biography of Wilford would be a most interesting read, as this is but one of his many misadventures, abuse of power and skirts with the law.

  • Marcus says:

    I find it quite odd that CAMI has not, as far as I know, issued any public statement regarding the Levine situation. I seriously doubt they would have approved of Levine’s own public statement.
    I wonder where CAMI stands in all of this.
    Also, as far as the Met goes, I wonder if Levine still has a contract there in place, and is he currently getting paid while being “suspended” from his Met duties and performances?
    And what of his future performances at the Met?
    If he is truly finished at the Met, why won’t Gelb and the board come right out and say so? And why is it taking them so long to do so?

    • Anon says:

      Simple answer as to why CAMI hasn’t given a statement- not enough public pressure yet and they’re just waiting for it all to blow over.

  • Anonanon says:

    CAMI have always lined their pockets at the expense of the orchestral musicians. Fact!

  • Mr. Schwa says:

    So fantastic that Wilford, the biggest bastard-SOB in classical music history, is finally being exposed and publicized for what he was. The fact that he is not here to defend himself is immaterial. Hitler’s not here either. The things Wilford did to people are so horrific, that they can’t even be mentioned without many people stating that the revealing source must surely be fabricating them and exaggerating. Wilford knew every detail about Levine’s crimes, his payoffs to victims and their families, the Met aiding in suppressing the facts, Gentele’s widow using her pull at the NYT to further bury things,etc.,etc.,etc. A lot of champagne flowed when Wilford departed this world, and PC social media comments attempting to see the good in him are annoying, because there wasn’t any.

    • Been Here Before says:

      Nobody is saying he was not an SOB. Unfortunately, your comment so reeks with anger and hate that it discounts anything rational you have to say about him.

      • Save the MET says:

        That’s just silly, his anger does not discount his opinion. Wilford’s misdeeds are well documented and who are you to judge him/her? Perhaps he had first hand experience, you don’t know.

  • MacroV says:

    What CAMI/Wilford knew, when they knew it, and what they did about it is perfectly fair game, esp. if any crimes are ever found to have occured. Even though Wilford is gone, CAMI as an institution could conceivably have liability – or at least face serious reputational damage.

  • Nick2 says:

    Save The Met’s comments above about CAMI are well known and were public even before Johanna Fielder’s book appeared. One of the German magazines had Karajan on the cover with an expose (I cannot recall if it was Stern or Der Spiegel). Indeed, Richard Osborne’s 1999 biography has a chapter devoted to this titled “Trouble over Taiwan”. In this, Gelb becomes the chief villain.

    CAMI was organising the Japan leg of a multi-country tour. When another country fell through, it was suggested that CAMI make an offer to Taiwan. Having ascertained interest, Gelb then sent the following terms to Taiwan –

    “You would provide all-inclusive fees for von Karajan and the Orchestra, totaling [sic] 600,000 DM [£200,000] for a total of 2 concerts, In addition, you would be required to purchase the Taiwan broadcasting rights for 10 previously produced television programs of von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic or the Vienna Philharmonic at the price of 35,000 US dollars [£22,000] per program, hence totalling 350,000 US dollars [£220,000] for all ten programs. You would be required to purchase the 10 programs before the tour takes place. You would also be required to present us with an unconditional letter of credit for all the above fees no later than Nov. 1, 1987.”

    Not surprisingly the Taiwanese rejected the terms, but the fact that CAMI was not merely suggesting such outrageous terms but also selling Vienna Philharmonic TV programmes on the back of a Berlin Philharmonic tour can hardly have pleased the Berliners. Osborne continues –

    “What defied belief was the idea that these disparate artistic and commercial interests could be so glibly packaged together – Stresemann {Wolfgang Stresemann, the Berlin Phil’s Intendant for 20 years who had finally retired the year before} later described the deal as ‘immoral, unethical, impossible to imagine.'”

    There can be no doubt that Gelb had first cleared the terms with Wilford.

    • Olassus says:

      He may have cleared the terms, but I doubt he cleared the tactless language.

      • Save the MET says:

        A college education would have helped Gelb. Lack thereof his been an Achilles heel of his and speaks volumes to his feckless attempt at leadership at the Metropolitan Opera. Then again he was feckless at Sony, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and was Wilford’s willing pawn before that.

  • Has-been says:

    Please stop this character assignation of Ronald Wilford. Stop and think, if the guy was all bad how did he reach the level of importance he did. I can attest to the fact that he helped and supported many of the very successful administrators working in todays music business. He was supportive, generous and kind to me over several decades. Ronald gave serious strategic advice to many fine artists, conductors and instrumentalists.
    Ronald kept employees at CAMI, including Sir Rudolf Bing who would have been lost financially with Mr Wilford’s support. RIP Ronald and ignore the sniping. Your legacy is with those you supported.

    • Nick2 says:

      The issue here is not the good that Ronald Wilford may have done. Probably a lot of mangers and artists would say precisely what you have stated. The crux of this thread is the vast power wielded by the man and his agency in the international music world, the damage that certainly caused to some (and that fact is irrefutable) and what he might – and probably would – have known about not only his own artists but others in the music business. A well-researched and thorough biography would be utterly fascinating. But he was such a secretive man, the chances of one appearing must surely be slim.

    • Save the MET says:

      By pushing the ill suited and inexperienced Gelb using favors and influence to the Metropolitan Opera after he was summarily dismissed during the Sony/BMG merger, he effectively destroyed a National Institution.

  • Wiener says:

    Habe gerade Zauberflöte Levine RCA angehört.
    Er ist halt doch einer der größten Dirigenten der Gegenwart.
    Und jeder hat seine Neigung eigentlich immer gewußt.

  • Charles Fischbein says:

    FYI. It is very difficult for a,public figure to win a libel suit.
    Having worked for several large newspapers I have seen totally frabicated interviews with high profile figures published with no consequences to the paper.
    Fake News may be a new term but the concept is quite old.

    • roger says:

      Charles is absolutely right. The standard is actual malice which means either publishing knowing the content is false or having a reckless disregard for whether it is true or false. It might be easier to go after his accuser if there is any proof that she is the source.

  • Charles Fischbein says:

    Proving malice is very difficult.
    A colleague if mine in the 90s wrote a fake interview with a very high profile Washington DC personality.
    Thus was done with full knowledge if our editor under pressure from the publisher.
    When we were contacted by an attorney representing the person, my editor asked the attorney if the answers to the questions attributed to the individual were different then the way he would his client would have the questions in an actual interview.
    When the attorney said the answers seemed correct even though the interview never took place, the editor simply replied
    Well what harm was done?
    That ended the conversation.
    Thus type if journalism goes on in some of the most highly regarded news rooms and fabricated quotes from so called unnamed sources are conjured up as needed.
    I repeat Fake News is nothing new

    • John Borstlap says:

      Publishing an interview that never took place is so outrageous, and crosses so many lines, even if the ontent was – in principle – true, the whole thing was a lie nonetheless. The newspaper should have been sued.

      But journalists can be very strange. Once I was interviewed shortly before a première and I was quite surprised to read the result as published being entirely made-up, 100% fantasy, because the author had other things to say than me. Complaining at the newspaper only made people very angry so I let it go.

      It is regrettable that the media have so often failed to take classical music seriously and failed to create posts for serious writers. Fortunately there are some around nowadays, but I think they have always been very rare.

  • Charles Fischbein says:

    Typo. Voice recognition let me down
    The question my editor asked the attorney was
    Were the answers attributed to your client different from answers he would have given in an actual interview?
    The attorney replied the answers,attributed to his client seemed ti be the same as if the interview had actually taken place
    End if story.
    No suit against our nationally circulated newspaper

  • carson says:

    Add to all this the fact that the Met Orchestra hates Levine and are overjoyed to see him go!

  • Cubs Fan says:

    And now Charles Dutoit…sigh…

  • Charles Fischbein says:

    Mark I think you may nerd t get back in your meds.
    How can you call the men and women in the Met. Orchestra lazy bastards?
    Sure David Chan is a lazy bastard just as the cadre if Juilliard graduates and others who have studied with the finest teachers in the world and spend more in their instruments than many spend in a home.
    I don’t know where you are coming from but it certainly is not from a place where reality is the norm!
    Shameful post

    • Mark says:

      Hey Fishface, why don’t you attend a few performances conducted by second- or third-rate conductors at the Met (too numerous to list) and then get back to me. It’s not what the musicians CAN do, it’s just (like most people in other professions) they’d always try to get away with not giving their best and just getting though a preformance. And Levine, even in his present heath condition, is capable of making them give their utmost. BTW, the Met once has much better concertmasters than Chan …