An American maestro remembers Jimmy Levine

An American maestro remembers Jimmy Levine


norman lebrecht

March 17, 2021

Leonard Slatkin has, at our request, written this fond memoir of an esteemed colleague:

In Memoriam James Levine

Aspen, Colorado. Summer 1964

Across from the Mountain Chalet, the domicile that housed students at the Aspen Music School, there is a park. Every Sunday, just after the dress rehearsal for the afternoon concert, a group of musicians would gather for the weekly softball game. Those not physically participating would sit on a little hill, watching the proceedings and hoping no one would break anything.

Among these spectators was the ever-young Jimmy Levine. I have no idea if he had any interest in the sport, but he certainly loved the attention paid to him as well as the banter and joke telling. All of us had a sort of reverence for him, as he was the wunderkind in so many arenas. At one moment, he might be playing sonatas with Lynn Harrell, at another leading an incandescent performance of Ariadne auf Naxos, as well as page turning for his piano teacher, Rosina Lhevinne, as she made her way through a Mozart concerto.

Jimmy – always that and never James – stood apart from all of us. I always had the feeling, at least back then, that he desperately wanted to be part of the gang. It was not enough to be admired, he needed to be accepted. But none of us could even begin to compete with that incredible depth of knowledge, flawless technique and uncanny ability to know what was musically right.

Watching him work with mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel was a master class in how a kid barely in his twenties, could teach the seasoned and tough-minded pro a few tricks. And he did it with the gentlest of words and actions. “Why don’t you just take a breath there?” Jimmy would ask. “ You knew Poulenc. What did he have to say about this phrase?” “ That is just a little bit under pitch, Jeannie. Think of it as an E Sharp rather than an F Flat.”

Those were very special days. We all knew what Jimmy would accomplish. It was no surprise that he led the Metropolitan Opera for all those years. No surprise that every singer wanted to work with him. No surprise that he always got what he wanted from his musicians in the pit and on stage.

Jimmy was the consummate musician, perhaps to a fault. He jettisoned almost everything to pursue what he believed was perfection, knowing full well that it could never be achieved. I often wondered what he wanted from his life other than to make music and how awful it must have been when various disabilities prevented him from doing his job at 100%.

Back at the ballfield, this incredibly gifted human was just another kid hanging around. Maybe he secretly wanted to play second base. No, if anything Jimmy would have been the pitcher, controlling the flow of the game. That’s wrong too. Manager might have been better suited to his temperament, but there is no way he would have argued with the umpires. So I guess it was just on the sidelines for him, but taking it all in, wanting to be a part of the game.

It all worked out. Eventually, Jimmy would own the team.



  • Zandonai says:

    Thank you maestro Slatkin!
    RIP Jimmy

  • CarlD says:

    Beautifully written, maestro.

  • Baron Ochs says:

    interesting that Maestro Slatkin mentions Lynn Harrell by name when Harrell was one of the musicians who came out in crticism of the now deceased rapist and pedophile.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      Well, he’s recalling a time half a century ago when they were in their twenties, and Levine was still simply a musical wunderkind and nothing else, as far as anyone knew.

    • Karl says:

      Can’t we have just ONE thread where we obey the golden rule that we learned early on? “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.”

    • JK says:

      The man’s dead, give it a rest.

    • Marfisa says:

      For the record, here is Lynn Harrell’s criticism of Levine (referring to Cleveland Institute of Music in the period 1965-72):

      “Cellist Lynn Harrell — who was principal cellist with the Cleveland Orchestra and befriended Levine before going on to a notable solo career — told the Globe that the few female “Levinites” were made to come on to blindfolded men in the group, in an activity he said Levine intended to test the men’s resolve and dedication to music.

      “The idea was to prevent yourself from getting an erection,” Harrell told the Globe. The cellist told the paper that he now considers the Levine situation in Cleveland a “tragedy,” saying: “”I just wish it could have been what it seemed to mean at the time.”

      • Karl says:

        So Harrell did nothing? That makes him guilty too, doesn’t it? It’s because he also didn’t think it was wrong at the time. No one forced these women to join the sex club.

        • Marfisa says:

          It was the 1960s. Flower-power, free sex, rock’n’roll, drugs – I’m sure some SD commenters are old enough to remember (unless they are too old to remember). Harrell and Levine were both still in their twenties then. No, it seems that Harrell didn’t see anything wrong at the time — but looking back, and with hindsight, he saw the dark and tragic side.

          And it wasn’t a sex club.

  • Gustavo says:

    Touching and insightful.

    Rosina Lhevinne…now that does ring a bell!

    Small World!

  • D says:

    E-sharp is in fact F, not F-flat; he probably meant to write “E-natural.”

    • mary says:

      The written note is F-flat (she was probably singing one of the two songs in “Fiançailles pour rire” in which the F-flats appear), and she no doubt sung the enharmonic E natural (perfectly in tune), but Poulenc was perverse in making the singer sing the F-flat in unison with the piano, which is tuned to equal temperament (thus probably tuned sharp on the piano), so she sounded “under pitched” against the piano, but since you can’t adjust the piano, you have to adjust the singer, so Levine tells her to think “E sharp” to slightly up the pitch of her E natural in order to accord with the sharper E on the piano.

      Levine was being brilliantly funny, said with a wink to an old pro who understood exactly what he meant.

      • Novagerio says:

        Mary, “enharmonic” on a temperated or electronic keyboard instrument only – yes 😉
        A voice or a string or a wind instrument have more “Zwischentöne”, as you might know.

    • BruceB says:

      If you think “E-sharp” it will help you lift the pitch, grammatically correct or not. He wasn’t asking her to get out her pencil and change the printed note, just to think of it differently.

    • Mr. Knowitall says:

      Why the down thumbs? E#=F, Fb=E, E#≠Fb, assuming equal temperament, of course.

  • Mecky Messer says:

    as if 5 “articles” on the pedophile/abuser are not enough, the following are loading:

    – Levine, the monster
    – Hear from the victims
    – Was he actually that bad? His roomate doesn’t think so
    – Which lovers did he prefer?

    We are in for a very long month folks. Buckle up!

  • Fiddleman says:

    Thank you maestro for this personal and insightful contribution.

  • J Barcelo says:

    Reading the Szell biography, there’s a list of requirements for anyone who wanted to work with and study with him. Levine must have been one hell of a musician to be able to meet those standards. It would be so nice to have a big box of his RCA recordings, but given the circumstances that probably won’t happen. No one is perfect; everyone has demons and faults to work through. It’s tragic how his career and life ended; it was pretty operatic really.

  • Freddy says:

    I don’t know about his private life, but I can’t but feel gratitude for what he gave his audience in NYC. I hope what he helped create at the Met is salvaged.

    Thank you Mr Lebrecht for publishing this

  • Kenny says:

    Thank you so much for this, Leonard.

  • Gerald says:

    Disgusting tribute. He was a monster

  • Charles says:

    Seems like people in this comment section are mostly excited to come together for the sake of keeping their idol on the pedestal; It feels good.

    I hope Mr. Slatkin does not focus only on the positive in this instance because he is a big name in the conducting profession and thinks Levine and his warm memories of Levine, as being are “above” the victims who were psychologically manipulated into being raped. But maybe Mr. Slatkin does hold a balanced attitude and outside of this memorial essay, he recognizes it. IDK, hope so.

    I wonder what the fathers enthusiastically pitching their support behind Jimmy would think if Levine took a chunk out of their baby-son’s soul? Once they get touched, they’ll never be the same again…
    “Who cares, I want my Levine Idol! thumbs down!”

    • Donna Pasquale says:

      Reading the comments on this post make me shudder. If you ever want an insight into the closing of ranks on abuse then read the responses to this post.

      • Anson says:

        Seriously. Glad I’m not the only one dismayed to see it. With the predictable peddling of excuses like “no one is perfect” and Norman’s brushing off of the “episode.” Using banality to whitewash abuse of children is shameful stuff. The idea that it should be “balanced” against his qualities as a conductor is an absolute non-sequitur.

        • Charles says:

          I’m gonna be graphic:
          Part of the issue, is that many folks do not really know enough about the horror of rape and sexual abuse, so it’s easier to marginalize that horror for the sake of the idol. If they every did know, either by experiencing it or hearing about from someone who has, it would become a different ball game.

          Thing about rape is, is that it destroys one’s sense of “inviolability”, that sense everyone has in order to defend against death anxiety. Rape penetrates to the core of a person and tears away the necessary, but illusory sense of inviolability. The pain in the act, since it goes through the sexual channels, makes the person “aroused” by the pain and turns the pain back into the persons psyche… so when some people orgasm during a rape, they blame themselves for the pain which in a sense, while the act is being perpetrated, makes the victim feel like they’re dying. All those sexual sensations going to the core of a person not from another’s love, but hate and the hate goes to the core. Then the shame of potential pregnancy, swelling breasts and physical trauma and smells and all… and the embarresment of family members thinking about how you got raped.
          No imagine doing that to a child, perhaps your daughter playing with her imaginary friends in the sandbox out back.

          …People like Levine get excited by the above.
          That’s what we’re talking about when we mention rape/sexual abuse.

          • Kathleen King says:

            Write to a medical journal, not here.

          • Karl says:

            Stop the hysteria. Levine was never even charged with rape. The police investigated one charge and found it was false.

          • norman lebrecht says:

            Untrue. Illinois Police took on one case but could not prosecute because it was too long ago.

          • Karl says:

            This was reported in the NYT and I see it is reported the same way in the Washington Post:

            “James Levine, the American conductor, will not face criminal charges on allegations that he sexually abused a minor in the 1980s. The police department of Lake Forest, Ill., which has been investigating the case since October 2016, announced today that there were no grounds for a criminal case.

            The alleged victim, Ashok Pai, now 48, was 16 at the time he claims Levine first had sexual relations with him. At that time, according to a statement from the Lake Forest Police Department, the statutory age of consent in Illinois was 16.

            The age of consent in Illinois has since been raised to 17 — or 18 in cases where the suspect is “in a position of trust, authority, or supervision in relation to the victim,” the statement said. But, the statement added, “we are bound to apply the law that was in effect at the time the allegations occurred rather than the law as it currently exists.”

          • Ashu says:

            I know all this, and I distinguish between the artist and the abuser, as I had to in the case of the artist who abused me.

          • Scott says:

            Now he’s a rapist, too? A predator is not a pedophile. You people are talking garbage.

        • Kathleen King says:

          “Children”? Nope, all accusers were at least the age of consent and Levine forced no one; they all wanted something from him, a part of his talent or influence. That is not “rape” that is prostitution.

    • Anon! A Moose! says:

      It’s a shame, he gives himself an opportunity to exhibit a little awareness: “Jimmy was the consummate musician, perhaps to a fault. He jettisoned almost everything to pursue what he believed was perfection,”

      But then he drops the ball and takes that thought in a different direction.

    • Eric says:

      “Once they get touched, they’ll never be the same again” is the sort of pop psychology which also claims that abused boys grow up to be abusers themselves. Lots of boys and young teens have sexual encounters with older men and in some cases it is rape/abuse. And sometimes – oh horror – the encounter is mutually enjoyable – no chunks ripped out of souls. Fantasies by heterosexual men about same-sex intergenerational encounters always assume some form of anal rape which is usually not what actually happens. I suspect the current hysteria about pedophilia is a way of being indirectly homophobic which is why so many gay men nervously distance themselves from the topic.

  • MLE says:

    “Leonard Slatkin has, at our request,…”

    At your request. Like, why would you request that.

  • Put down that stick. says:

    Slatkin has no idea how to conduct where human voices are involved. Naturally he would envy any conductor who does. The baseball analogy is absolute crap.

  • Sharon says:

    What a life! What a complicated guy! What lessons to be learned, both musically and in behavior and in both good and bad leadership. Therefore, may his memory be for a blessing.

  • Gustavo says:

    What about the Munich years?

    Mahler 9

    Siegfried Act III

    Any good?

    • Joel stein says:

      And the Boston years? Mahler (especially a spectacular performance of the 8th) Gershwin, Ives 2, Brahms Requiem, most of the major symphonists ( minus Bruckner and Shostakovich) and of course much 20th c music.

      • Karl says:

        The Mahler 3rd is the one I remember best. He was the only conductor I know to have a full intermission after the first movement. I liked it that way.

  • Daniel says:

    I am a big fan of Mr. Slatkin, but this “tribute” is very upsetting and reveals much of his character (or lack thereof). How can you glorify “Jimmy” without even mentioning the horror he brought upon his many victims? This monster sexually assaulted numerous teenage men and the air of “reverence” that surrounded him on that softball field and throughout his entire career, kept him safe and allowed him to carry out these acts for decades and decades. Men of privilege like Mr. Slatkin excuse his behavior even now and create space for others to commit similar crimes by remaining silent and continuing to glorify “Jimmy.”

    • Karl says:

      Harvey Milk had sex with underage boys and the left has made him into a hero. Levine was thoroughly investigated and was never found to have had sex with anyone under the age of consent.

    • Kathleen King says:

      Daniel, take your problems to YOUR therapists. Maestro Levine was a genius. Your phobias are your problem.

    • KT Pario says:

      Bro, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Classical music is in the toilet precisely because of “the great overlook” of the past 300 years. Took awhile, but folks are finally starting to catch up. i hope the Met collapses. The place is rotten to the core.

  • Great composers and great conductors tend to be emotionally and sexually challenged individuals. That’s a fact. Just check your music history. I remember Jimmy from Aspen in 1958 when we both summered at Ed’s Beds. I met him again at the Westchester Mall a couple of years ago when he was checking out the Godiva Chocolate store in his motorized wheel chair. He looked so small and frail I hardly recognized him. When first we met he was a brilliant nerd and here he was a pathetic invalid. Much had happened to both of us in the intervening years. I was a talented trumpet player but no a genius like Jimmy. But I am still alive at 79 and happy as can be for a retired professor of music theory and composition after 56 years in the classroom sharing my passion for life and learning with my students.

  • Kathleen King says:

    Thank you Maestro Slatkin for remembering a GREAT musician. So much joy, talent and commitment. (Too bad Peter Gelb et al. are so busy destroying — or trying to do so — the Maestro’s legacy and memory. Requiescat in gades pace.


    He “owned the team” is probably a poor choice of words here.

  • Kman says:

    And here’s another American maestro with a very different but very important perspective

    • Amos says:

      A thorough explanation of why it is beyond reprehensible to honor a sociopath with a talent, any talent, in this case musical. The scene with
      JL sitting on the hill watching his “friends” play softball rather than sitting with them is telling. I doubt if any of the participants were planning on trying out for the Yankees so embarrassment wasn’t the reason but I’d bet an inability to face any situation in which he wasn’t in charge, as in being “the pitcher”, was. Fine lacking social skills isn’t a crime until you deal with it by committing them over and over…

    • Anson says:

      Terrific piece. Thanks for the link.

    • Scott says:

      Who considers Kenneth Woods to be an important conductor?

    • Paracelsus says:

      Woods’ post is a travesty. He makes sweeping assessments about someone he never met and for which he has no evidence. He sounds petty and jealous and weirdly hysterically judgmental. No one knows who he is and he’s clearly looking for attention. He’s also a poor writer. This casts a poor light on his musical associations.

  • another Leonard says:

    Leonard, thanks so much for your warm tribute to Jimmy. He was a very gifted musician but like all of us , he was flawed, Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.