Exclusive: John Rockwell surveys 50 years of James Levine

Exclusive: John Rockwell surveys 50 years of James Levine


norman lebrecht

March 18, 2021

The long-serving New York Times cultural critic John Rockwell observed James Levine at close quarters for most of his life.

While the NY Times continues to publish multiple corrections to its Levine obit, Slipped Disc asked coolheaded Rockwell for an assessment of Levine’s life and work. Here it is below his picture byline.


by John Rockwell


James Levine was a great opera conductor, until he wasn’t. I don’t want to dwell here on his failings, or his personal peculiarities, his illnesses and his sad last years. I appreciated him as a member of the audience and as a critic and reporter, mostly at the Met but also elsewhere, especially Salzburg, and on his innumerable CD’s and DVD’s.

I first heard him – probably heard of him, really — conducting Tosca at the San Francisco Opera in the spring of 1971, shortly before his Met debut with the same opera in June. It was a true announcement of a talent who would make his mark — no surprise to those who had followed him as George Szell’s assistant for six years in Cleveland. But in 1971 he was still only 28, and everyone who heard those Toscas knew immediately that he was on his way.

What made him such a sovereign opera conductor? There was the bracing breadth of his repertory, from Mozart to Schoenberg and beyond. He was equally at home in the core Italian and Germanic repertory, but also with French and Russian and Czech composers and mid-century moderns, though his tastes in newer music remained steadfastly with the more severe composers (Carter, Babbitt, Wuorinen) and some of their European counterparts than with “downtown” post-modernism.

Levine attracted the best singers of the day and won the trust of generations of Met audiences. No fear of overexposure, even while leading one third of performances a season and some 2,500 of 85 operas over his 47-year Met career and commandering most of the prestigious premieres and galas. (His canny manager, Ronald Wilford, had won him generous per-performance fees beyond his munificent salary). During his Met years he held titles from principal conductor to music director to artistic director then back to music director, when he became music director in Boston, to music director emeritus. For decades, James Levine was (italics) the Met.

His catholicity of taste led some to bemoan his lack of a personal musical profile, of interpretive distinctiveness. If he was an A- in everything, could he be an A+ in something? But for me, he shone at his best. Levine never indulged in the niceties of “authentic” performance practice; the Met house at 3,900 capacity was too big for that. His Mozart was in the warm and engaging Vienna Philharmonic style, and deeply satisfying as such. That conservatism carried over to his initial opposition to supertitles (a compromise was found in the back-of-each-seat MetTitles). And to his resistance to Regie-Theater. The hardly untalented Jean-Pierre Ponnelle was his favorite director-designer, but there was also John Dexter, who from 1975 to 1981 produced some of the most innovative and inspiring stagings in Met history.

Levine’s Berlioz was path-breaking (his complete Troyens) and his Verdi and Puccini breathed with the singers and sang with Italian cantilena. His Wagner was stirring, at least until his performances slowed down and grew increasingly slack in his later years. His championing of 20th-century music was admirable and idiomatic, although the limitation of budgetary constraints robbed him of some of his hopes, like a production of St. Francois d’Assise (still not staged in New York).

Despite his long experience and best efforts, Levine never came close to matching his successes in operatic repertory in the symphonic field. His grandest achievement was making his Met orchestra into a world-class ensemble and bringing it into Carnegie Hall for an annual spring series. But his tenures at Ravinia, Munich, Boston and Verbier, as well as his regular concerts with the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics, failed to match his operatic endeavors.

The main general managers during his Met years, Anthony Bliss, Bruce Crawford, Joseph Volpe and Peter Gelb, mostly supported their demanding conductor, although Gelb had a well-documented falling out with Levine that led finally to Levine’s dismissal in 2017 and the subsequent lawsuits and financial settlement. The coronavirus has taken a grievous toll on the Met, which Levine lived to witness, including the erosion of his beloved orchestra. But whatever one thinks of Gelb’s tactics, he did not cause the pandemic. Neither did James Levine.

Levine’s legacy will live on in his recordings and in histories of the Met. He was painfully guarded in interviews and in most social contexts beyond his fellow musicians. But personally I remember him with enormous affection, for his countless great performances and for the lasting impact he had on the company he defined for nearly five decades.



  • microview says:

    I thought his VPO Mozart Symphonies [DG] were awful!

  • A.L. says:

    “The coronavirus has taken a grievous toll on the Met, which Levine lived to witness, including the erosion of his beloved orchestra. But whatever one thinks of Gelb’s tactics, he did not cause the pandemic.”

    True but Mr. Rockwell knows better. The crises, both fiscal and artistic, at the Metropolitan precede the pandemic, as I have written many a time before. The orchestra could play like angels but if there are no genuine vocal artists, no interesting, vocally charismatic singers up on stage, it’s just peanuts.

  • Anon says:

    Just wondering what the difference is between a “coolheaded” assessment and a total whitewash.

  • The View from America says:

    “I don’t want to dwell here on his failings, or his personal peculiarities …”

    How innocuous you make it all seem.

    • Anson says:

      No kidding. “James Levine, he certainly has a quirk or two. You know, he still wears pince-nez in this day and age, he wears red socks, and what was the other peculiarity of his? Oh yes, the way that he used his power to manipulate boys into providing sexual favors over decades. What an original!”

  • Jack Burt says:

    I was generally not a fan, musically, of Levine. Many US musicians knew of the rumors of his personal life, and whispered about it for decades. Everyone “knew”… the MET is incredibly disingenuous about this… But, he was an undeniably important and talented musician. His Vienna/Salzburg Zauberflöte (happily on video), is wonderful, in particular Christian Bösch as Papageno and Peter Schreier as Tamino. Also, I heard him accompany Thomas Quasthoff, in Die Winterreise, live in Symphony Hall in Boston, circa 2008… Remarkable piano playing.

  • RW2013 says:

    “CD’s and DVD’s”?! (sic)

  • Brian says:

    “He was painfully guarded in interviews and in most social contexts beyond his fellow musicians.”

    Well, of course. He was hiding from journalists the fact that he was a sexual predator and abuser.

    Also, there are times when one can separate the art from the artist, but so much of Levine’s artistry took place in the context of his “peculiarities.” His behavior and art were closely linked.

  • Mark says:

    I listened to a live recording of his Mahler 2 with the VPO yesterday via Spotify. Perhaps just a B+ performance overall, but he finds the right emotional balance and it was definitely worth a listen. I plan on going back to his Mahler 5th with the Philadelphia Orchestra soon. It was analog transferred to CD, and so the sound quality is not what we’re used to today.

    Overall, Levine was a serious and highly accomplished musician. The allegations about his personal conduct were disturbing. Perhaps his box office success caused some to ignore accusations until recently. In any event, I hear the music on its own terms.

    • Greg says:

      I was never a big fan of his Mahler. His M3 with Chicago has to be the most pedantic ever recorded. Interminably slow tempi, particularly in the finale. His M5 with Philly is a bit better paced, yet still somehow unengaging. Honestly, I always thought he was a bit overrated.

      • Amos says:

        His PO Mahler 5th is imo like most of his symphonic recordings in being devoid of a point of view other than being accurately played. The Dvorak he recorded with the CSO and the Mendelssohn with the BPO are unlistenable. His work with the PO supposedly came to an end because he insisted on talking the musicians to death. The story is he went only so long talking about a Beethoven symphony that the concertmaster, I assume it was Norman Carol, finally had to interrupt him and say something to effect that “we have played this before”.

    • Richard says:


  • William Evans says:

    John Rockwell says, “I appreciated him as a member of the audience …”. Well, I think many would agree; in his latter years Levine would indeed have been better placed as ‘a member of the audience’! (My copyediting background revealing itself here, I’m afraid. Ha, ha!)

  • William Evans says:

    Why on earth does John Rockwell mention COVID-19 in his homage to Levine? To pad the piece while steering clear of Levine’s abhorrent personal (and, it seems, sometimes professional) treatment of younger performers? As noted by another correspondent, a whitewash indeed!

  • James Strange says:

    One of the best piano/cello recitals that I ever heard was Levine and Lynn Harrell 40 some years ago. Exquisite musicianship.

  • Mark says:

    Levine brought the house down at Ravinia a few years ago conducting Mahler 2 from his wheelchair. Perhaps not every Mahler performance was an A, but very few conductors are at 100% all the time. I don’t recall Levine’s 3rd, but did like his 5 through 8. Did not hear his 9th (also recorded with Philadelphia). If his 3rd was very slow, that was not uncommon for the time and I would believe that’s how he thought the piece should go after studying it. In Chicago around that time, Solti was a bit fast and a bit of a slug fest. Abbado had good pacing albeit somewhat detached. Levine had many triumphs with the CSO, and his Ravinia era was an abundance of riches in terms of summer programming and guest artists. It hasn’t been the same since he left.

  • David R. Moran says:

    A pre-Met musical reminiscence is here:

  • Zandonai says:

    I find it hypocritical of all you Levine haters that you would listen to the works of Beethoven, Bellini, Chopin, Wagner, etc. with total ‘coolheadness’ without consideration for their personal peculiarities and failings,… all horrible human beings.

    • Ashu says:

      Maybe they hate and condemn them all. That does seem to be the logical final position of this kind of moralization of art.

    • Saxon says:

      By all accounts Beethoven was rather difficult as a person, but he really wasn’t a “horrible human being”.

  • Andrew says:

    His Mahler 5 with the Philadelphia Orchestra is among the best there is.

  • Angry Ludwig says:

    Greg is absolutely right. He was vastly overrated. In-depth research needs to emerge as to why he was retained at the Met for so long…

  • Ronald E Smith says:

    I remember when John Rockwell reviews of Classical music appeared in the NYT… It was a hard sell… Every opera classical music performance now has this upstart name as the reviewer. I took a while. Like the poor reception the twin towers got in lower Manhattan… The ugly twin sisters… We know how that turned out. I realized when I saw your last set of reviews from Salzburg Festival 20XX? I was thrilled to know you were still hanging in and going opera for for a solid week. How lucky the NYT’s and we the readers, your reviews, covering classical music and my favorite… the hard sell, opera… You care, by making it relevant for all. Beware… COVID might actually kill something else I love dearly … Opera… That I am afraid is a real possibility… Thank you… John Rockwell
    Ron Smith

  • Biderman Chart says:

    The ongoing and grotesque cover up of his criminal activities is truly mind blowing. He raped children.