Wall Street Journal: The Met is burning books

Wall Street Journal: The Met is burning books


norman lebrecht

May 17, 2018

From Terry Teachout’s column today on the ban on James Levine’s recordings at the Met’s radio channel:

… Perhaps it doesn’t matter all that much that the Kennedy Center has hosed Mr. Cosby’s name off its increasingly trivial roll of pop-culture sycophancy. But Met Opera Radio did something far more consequential when it chucked Mr. Levine’s historic recordings into the memory hole, an act of suppression that bears a distant but nonetheless definite resemblance to book-burning. By doing so, it effectively declared that great musicians must also be good men—a position that can be defended only by the tone-deaf.

Read on here.



  • william osborne says:

    There are some obvious weaknesses to Teachout’s arguments. Sure we can still laugh at Cosby’s great comedy routines. What a gifted man. But it’s impossible not to now see his work unfiltered by the lens of his monstrosities. It is perfectly reasonable for people to withdraw awards and other forms of recognition from those whose names come to defile the image of those awards or institutions. And that’s especially true when those awards and institutions are supposed to represent what is noble and good about humanity.

    I like the Met’s compromise that it will return to Levine’s recordings when the time is right. For now it isn’t. Jumping to the conclusion that Cosby and Levine are being treated irrationally, would hint at an attitude of acquiescence toward their deeply harmful behavior. For the benefit of our community, we have to take a clear stance against such actions. Rescinding Cosby’s awards, and temporarily avoiding Levine’s recordings makes a statement that needs to be made. It’s not hypocrisy, its respect for people and human dignity.

    And we should note that both men are still walking free and have thus been treated leniently by just about any measure.

    • william osborne says:

      And anyone can see and hear the work of Cosby and Levine on demand with just a few mouse clicks. How silly to use terms like book burning. Teachout needs to take off his tin foil hat. Or more likely, he’s just trying to be a sort of dime store Thomas Wolfe challenging the intelligentsia’s presumed phoniness…

    • John Borstlap says:

      Entirely agreed with this comment. That is exactly how it is.

      The difficulties highly-gifted artists may have to answer the requirements of ethics which are there for everybody, does not mean that they are exempt from standards of human behavior. Especially such artists should feel not less, but more obligation to be a decent human being. In reality, that is mostly the case. But attention is drawn to the exceptions, and they are all the more embarrassing and disappointing. Being human with inescapable failings is one thing, but getting away with totally unacceptable, and avoidable behavior is another.

      • anon says:

        You and Osborne are creating amorphous and slippery standards (“deeply harmful behavior”, “requirements of ethics” “standards of human behavior” “obligation to be a decent human being”) and confounding them with actual crimes.

        Anyone can be “guilty” of the former but not of the latter. To require that anyone uphold the former lest their life work be banned is to enter into very dangerous territory, precisely the Orwellian 1984 territory that Teachout points to.

        You’ve got to be precise in your indictment: I am banning Levine because he used his position of authority to sexually take advantage of 16 and 17 year olds, even though it was not a crime at the time. Such a precise statement of the facts allows for rational debates on both sides of the issue. An amorphous statement like, I am banning Levine because he was not a decent human being is Orwellian.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Yes, a sharp line has to be drawn between ‘bad behavior’ and crime. That is where the law is for.

          Yet, crimes as Levine’s are obviously resulting from the idea that great artists can be excused and don’t have to conform to general ethical standards. This lowers the treshold for ego maniacs and their ‘bad behavior’ gets a new impulse.

    • Brian B says:

      Entirely agree with your balanced commentary. Teachout has been one of the leading finger pointers at the Met and Peter Gelb over some measure of facilitating Levine’s behavior; and now he appears to be wanting to eat his cake and have it too. Nor should we forget there’s ongoing litigation by Levine against the Met which is a factor in the Met’s profiting from his broadcasts. Suspending airplay of Levine broadcasts is hardly comparable to the burning of books and attempting such a forced syllogism would probably earn you a fail in Logic 101.

      • Sharon says:

        I am very surprised that some editor reading Teachout’s article at the Wall Street Journal did not realize that there is probably a business reason behind suspending Levine’s broadcasts, royalties, licensing etc that will be negotiated in the law suit which the Met may have been expecting since Levine’s attorneys first demanded that he be reinstated in December.

        When the case is finished the broadcasts will probably resume. This is why Gelb said that the broadcasts will resume “at the appropriate time”.

        Incidentally, there will be a “compliance conference” in New York County Supreme Court on June 27 concerning this case, which was set after the “pre trial conference” this past week. When I was a caseworker in child support enforcement “compliance” meant that the person who owed money paid what was due.

        Therefore, does this mean that a settlement has been reached and the judge just wants to see if the Met is actually complying with paying Levine in accordance to what was agreed to although it seems a little early in the game for this?

        Or does compliance just mean ensuring that the parties have reached certain goalposts in the negotiations that might have been set this week? For example, providing the other side with various documents or coming to terms on some of points of contention that the judge or the parties believed were either easier to negotiate or that are priorities? Mark?

      • MacroV says:

        Thank you for saying it correctly: “EATING you cake and HAVING it.” Usually said the other way around, which of course is what everybody does.

    • MWnyc says:

      NOTE: Bill Cosby is not walking free. Since he was convicted, he is under house arrest. More comfortable than he’d be in prison, yes, but definitely not free.

      • william osborne says:

        True, but definitely not in prison either. Pretty lenient for someone convicted of rape, and plausibly accused of some dozens of others.

  • Bill says:

    One very big difference is that Cosby had been tried and convicted of a crime(s). He only walks free pending sentencing/appeals.

    Levine has been accused of various misdeeds, and is from the looks of it, at least guilty of moral failure, maybe worse. He is certainly guilty in the court of public opinion, but so far, no criminal action has been brought before a court of law.

  • JamesM says:

    Canadian radio now omits mentioning Charles Dutoit’s name when they play Montreal Symphony recordings of his. Just the orchestra is mentioned. Maybe this could be a compromise here.

    • msc says:

      I think you mean the CBC (Engl.) and Radio Canada (Fr.): there is much more to Canadian radio than just them. The decision is, to my mind, silly. He made those recordings and if you’re going to play them, name him. Or, If you strongly condemn him, then don’t play him at all. There are composers and musicians of much much greater moral turpitude that are played without any censorship, and to single Dutoit out that way, as vile as his behaviour seems to be, is strange.

    • Bruce says:

      As a flute player, I still feel that “the classic Timothy Hutchins recording of __________ with the Montreal Symphony” would be an appropriate to announce all OSM recordings on the radio.

      (Srsly though: I turned on the radio partway into the Prokofiev Violin Concerto #1. I thought “the violinist is good, but WHO IS THAT FLUTE PLAYER??” It turned out to be Joshua Bell, with Timothy Hutchins and his orchestra, conducted by Lord Voldemort.)

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      That’s more or less like suggesting publish the books of Louis-Ferdinand Céline without the author’s name, since the author was an ‘evil Nazi sympathizer’ but his books are very good indeed.

    • Thomasina says:

      I don’t know if his matter is being forgotten but in Le journal de Montréal dated May 12 (le cahier de voyage), there was an article about Tanglewood and a picture of the concert with Dutoit (no picture of Nelsons) with the description ” BSO sous la direction du chef invité Charles Dutoit “. Nobody seems to care about what happened to him…

  • kaa12840 says:

    Teachout has written a column that simply describes what is happening. If there is anything missing, it is that these “poor” organizations, the Met and the Kennedy Center are in a most difficult place; they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. For once, I have my sympathies with the Met, I hope that I will never be in a position like this; I wouldn’t know what to do really

  • Marcus Clayton says:

    Obviously, the Met is seeking to distance themselves from Levine any way they can.
    I subscribe to Sirius/XM Radio and listen quite often to the Met Opera channel.
    I don’t really miss Levine’s performances at all, since I have never been a fan of his conducting. There are many broadcasts they can play with far better conductors than Levine.
    I will miss hearing many of the singers he conducted, such as Scotto, Troyanos, Millo, etc., in certain performances.
    I wish, for the good of the Met, that this whole Levine mess, and his accompanying lawsuit, would end soon.
    The Met will be far better off with Levine gone once and for all. He has been ruining performances for far too long.
    I am looking forward to seeing what Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin will do as the new music director going forward.

    • Mark says:

      Clayton, you are entitled to your opinion, but since very few people would agree with you, including Levine’s colleagues, singers, instrumentalists and critics, you are either a better judge of these matters than anyone else (highly unlikely), or just have a giant chip on your shoulder (very likely).

      • Sharon says:

        See my above comment. Levine’s case is scheduled for a “compliance conference” on June 27. Mark, what is a compliance conference?

        • Mark says:

          Sharon, it’s to confirm that the parties comply with the schedule of the case, as set by the judge, and to explain any delays or address any issues (including discovery)

          • Sharon says:

            Thanks Mark. I was hoping that “compliance conference” would imply more about what constituted the “schedule of the case” but I guess all that we can do is take a wait and see attitude.

            I am interested enough to attend myself if the part will be open to the public. I understand that this judge’s part generally is but this case is so high profile an exception might be made.

            I fear that this might drag on a couple of months

            Also I would be very curious to look at the court record but I suspect it would remain in the part and unavailable to the public until the case is settled.

      • Marcus Clayton says:

        I have no chip on my shoulder whatsoever. I was simply voicing my educated opinion that Levine was a mediocre conductor, and vastly overrated.
        He routinely ignored composer’s tempo and dynamic markings in the score in many operas he conducted, for example.To me, that makes him a very mediocre conductor if he cannot faithfully interpret the score.
        The lethargic pace at which he conducted the prelude to Parsifal is a prime example of his ineptness as a conductor.
        As for all the singers who praised and adored him, they obviously did so to keep singing at the Met.
        So where are they now? Why has not one single singer or orchestra member spoken out in support of Levine in all of this?
        Yea, that’s what I thought………..

        • Mark says:

          Because the Met doesn’t allow them to. All the Met employees were instructed to avoid making any statements on this topic. Privately (I’ve spoken to quite a number of them), they all say they miss Jim.

    • Yes Addison says:

      Marcus, all three of the people you name appeared in Met radio broadcasts that were conducted by other people. So they could still be played.

  • boringfileclerk says:

    Levine is by all accounts a monster, and we will have to wait to see what the courts make of his past deeds. I am, however, not a revisionist. Despite Levine’s alleged moral deficiencies, he is or at least was in fact the most gifted conductor of our time. This is problematic, and I have mixed emotions about it. Given the past history of gifted, yet morally flawed artists, this was probably the best solution.

  • Eli Bensky says:

    The headline that the Met is burning books is a lie. The WSJ DID NOT SAY THAT THE MET WAS BURNING BOOKS. . This is disgusting.

    We shall see if this letter is published

    • norman lebrecht says:

      The writer calls it ‘a distant but nonetheless definite resemblance to book-burning’. Close enough.

      • Bill says:

        the author might write that, but he is wrong. This is not at all like book-burning. Nothing is being destroyed. A better analogy would be a bookseller who declined to stock some author’s work. If you insist on only shopping at that establishment, yes, you’ll not be able to acquire those works as easily (though in my experience, even if they don’t want to stock something, they will order it for you).

  • Anson says:

    Preposterous interpretation by Teachout. Met Opera Radio is in no way doing something “resembling book burning.” Levine recordings are still available. Anyone can buy and listen to them if they want. Levine fans could even work out a deal with the Met to buy the rights to the recordings and play them on an all-Levine channel if they want, because the recordings are not “burned.” Met Opera Radio is simply choosing not to play them. No one is entitled to make Met Opera Radio play exactly what they want, whenever they want it.

    • Stephen Owades says:

      James Levine’s commercial recordings are still available, but the Met’s SiriusXM channel plays transcriptions of live performances that are not available elsewhere. One does not substitute for the other. I am not an advocate for returning James Levine’s recordings to the Met channel, at least not yet, but I recognize that commercial releases can’t replace these live transcriptions for those who want to hear the Met’s work from recent decades.

  • David Boxwell says:

    I’ve taken a leaf out of the Met’s book. I’ve thrown out all opera recordings involving Bohm, Krauss, Von Karajan, and Schwarzkopf. I feel more noble. And if the Met’s Sirius channel plays any of their work while I’m listening, I’m switching over to hip-hop.

  • collin says:

    1) If the Met store still sells all of Levine’s recordings then the temporary ban on the radio is a pure cynical act of hypocrisy, of the triumph of money over morals.

    2) Fact: no one is suing Levine or prosecuting Levine. (Levine is suing the Met.) So much for all these accusations against Levine, they are just that, made in newspapers but not in courts of law.

    • Sharon says:

      Again, there may be some business reason for not broadcasting, royalties, licensing etc that may not apply to the the DVD and CDs

    • Bill says:

      Not true – the Met has filed a lawsuit against Levine. Reported in the NYT in the last few days, and should be easy to find.

  • Dan P. says:

    To me, the institutional banning of the artistic work of artists with moral failings – real and alleged – is an empty gesture that is just as empty and self-serving as all those sanctimonious gun fetishists who offer their “thoughts and prayers” to victims of senseless and preventable gun violence. What does it accomplish and who benefits by banning these re-broadcasts? It certainly doesn’t accomplish anything real and I can’t imagine any victim is made whole by the suppression of a particular broadcast of Levine conducting Aida or Lulu. At the root of it, is, I think, the Met’s embarrassment and nothing more since no one is forced to listen to these broadcasts – least of all those who have been harmed by Levine.

    My question is this: if we do agree that such composers and artists should be shunned, where do we draw the line. For the sake of argument, is spousal murder worse than sexual harassment? If not, then if we ban Levine’s performances, what do we do with Gesualdo? Is there a statute of limitations for murder, after which it’s ok? Then, what about all those performers and composers who supported or at least knowingly went along with evil, murderous regimes? Now that’s a LONG LONG list in itself.

    In the end, I think it’s simple embarrassment posing as a principled moral stance on the Met’s part, and empty arm waving by people by a supposedly outraged who do nothing about the all of the preventable outrages on members of society that we see on the TV news but go out to the kitchen for a soda refill during the commercials.

    There are good and bad people just as there is good and bad art. It seems to be irrational and – to be blunt – stupid to filter the latter through the lens of the former on an institutional level. It reminds me of my hometown library that back in the ’70s put “certain” books in closed stacks so as not to offend delicate sensibilities of library patrons. You know, the ones that even vaguely alluded to the existence of S…..E…..X.

  • Dan P. says:

    Correction. Just two corrections on the above: (1) “If not, then if we ban,” should read, “If so, then if we ban.” And (2) “and empty arm waving by people by a supposedly outraged…” should read. “empty arm waving by people who are supposedly outraged but do nothing about all of the preventable outrages…” I type too fast and miss these things. Apologies.

  • Colin Eatock says:

    To me, the Met’s announcement that Levine’s performances “will be reintroduced to the programming at an appropriate time” speaks volumes. Is that not code for “will be reintroduced when this whole tempest in the teapot has blown over, and we can get back to the business of profiting from our glorious legacy”? The Met’s handling of this situation isn’t about principle or morality, it’s about PR and financial interest.

    • MWnyc says:

      Fair enough, although PR and financial interests are not unreasonable concerns for the Met. (By the way, I’m inclined to agree with Sharon that the Met thinks it’s legally prudent not to play Levine’s recordings on its SiriusXM channel while Levine is suing the company.)

  • Rupert Mupkin says:

    I say this only because the general bitchiness of this forum makes me feel I can. Teachout should refrain from tweeting out the minutiae of, what seems like, each and every thought or task that occurs during his waking hours. His addiction to social media affirmation and oversharing is as pathological as that of a lonely teen.