A couple of decades back, when the Verbier Festival named James Levine as music director of its youth orchestra, I asked the festival’s founder, Martin Engstroem, if he shared the awareness in music circles that Levine had a predilection for teenaged boys. Engstroem replied that he had known Levine for years, and that precautions would be taken to safeguard orchestra members. No Verbier incident has ever come to light.
But this do-know-don’t-know was typical of the attitude of classical institutions towards a conductor who hung out in sweaty t-shirts and a cloud of rumours, none of them substantiated. Now that three men have come forward to accuse Levine of grooming them for sexual acts, at a time that they were teenagers and he was a powerful conductor, the worlds of opera and classical music are having to take stock of past myopia and assess the likely backlash.
Without prejudging the allegations, the organisations below are the ones with most to contemplate.
1 Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood
Levine was active at Tanglewood in the 1970s. The BSO says it conducted due diligence when it named him music director in 2003. The Boston Globe ran an investigation and came up with no story, at least none that was publishable by the more stringent criteria of the time.
2 Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Ravinia
Levine guested with Chicago in the 1970s and was music director of the Ravinia Festival, 1973-1993. One of the published allegations relates to Chicago.
3 Cleveland Orchestra
Levine cut his conducting teeth under George Szell in the 1960s. UPDATE: 3 cities disown Levine.
4 Metropolitan Opera
Levine made his debut in Tosca in June 1971 and was named music director in 1976. From then until last year, when he became emeritus, he enjoyed the wholehearted support of the orchestra, whose conditions he fought to improve and whose standards he raised. Two external incidents reported to the board appear to have been brushed aside. What went on within the Met stayed in the Met. The company has now commissioned an independent investigation.
5 Verbier Festival
6 Record labels
Levine worked with RCA, Deutsche Grammophon and Decca. An incident was reported in London during the course of a recording session, after which Levine kept away from the UK for 17 years. Were the labels aware?
7 London orchestras, and others
Levine recorded with the Philharmonia Orchestra and the LSO. In Europe, he conducted the Berlin Philharmonic and Vienna, often at the Salzburg Festival.
8 Munich Philharmonic
Levine was music director from 1999 to 2004. The size of his fee drew opposition in the city council. Some Green Party members asked about his sexual predilections. The appointment was democratically approved.
9 Columbia Artists
Levine was managed by the late Ronald Wilford, co-owner of the giant agency. Whatever Levine did, Wilford knew.
10 Peter Gelb
The present manager of the Met was Wilford’s protégé at Columbia Artists. Gelb knew Levine well and was press flak for him in Boston. In recent seasons, he has been trying to shuffle Levine into retirement.
11 The New York Times
Whatever Gelb knew about Levine was also known by his father, a senior executive at the Times. Many other Times journalists were privy to the tittle-tattle about Levine. None ever raised it in an interview with him. UPDATE: With the honorable exception of John Rockwell in 1987. Levine replied: ‘I don’t have the faintest idea where those rumors came from or what purpose they served.’
12 Everyone else
Hundreds in the music world heard stories. No-one did anything. We all need to ask if our standards of conduct were good enough and if our consciences are clear that we did enough to protect vulnerable young persons.