Tim Page on the magnetism of James Levinemain
The Washington Post has the first full obituary of the former Met music director.
Tim Page writes:
With his bushy mess of graying hair and sweeping gestures, he was an immediately recognizable figure to anyone who had ever flipped on public television to see him conducting classical warhorses, as well as more avant-garde works. He exuded control and excitement about the music he led — no matter how many times he had watched Violetta waste away in “La Traviata” or the title heroine jump to her death in “Tosca.”
In a field that relies heavily on donors and stalwart subscribers, Mr. Levine drew hundreds of people to the Met for performance after performance, year after year, even as the longest-lasting singers had to retire their voices.
He guided revered performers such as Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo, Jessye Norman, Cecilia Bartoli and Kiri Te Kanawa and earned a reputation as one of the most supportive conductors and accompanists in the field. “I could go where they pay four or five times what I get at the Met,” Domingo once said. “But the other places do not offer the opportunity to work with Jim.”
Read on here.
If I remember rightly he made his British debut conducting for WNO (the original) in Llandudno in north Wales at the Odeon theatre which was converted from a cinema every year so that WNO could visit. John Pritchard (I think- it was a long time ago) had conducted the opening night in Cardiff. I just remember meeting a young man with very curly hair. It must have been in the 60’s we had all got permed hair and lots of beads!
He was among the most passive-aggressive and snide individuals in classical music. During his time in Cleveland (!964-1970) he would “privately” deride George Szell as Uncle George who only cares about hearing every 32nd note and relies on the piano to solve problems rather than the human voice. Publicly he stated that leaving Julliard without a degree and joining the CO was an invaluable experience. The fact that GS secured him an early opportunity to conduct the San Fransisco Opera was quickly forgotten. IMO JL never demonstrated an iota of the vitality that infused the vast majority of Szell performances especially live performances. His time in Boston was nothing short of a disaster.
Entirely agree. An overrated conductor in every way. Hogged the Met performances, blocking other more excitin artists.
Levine took part in the premiere of Babbitt’s “Relata”, conducted by Bernstein. Remarkably, Levine had not only memorised the piano part, but all the other parts as well of this immensely complex piece.
Very interesting comments, Amos. And I suspect they’re entirely on target. For sure your comments about his Boston tenure are 100% correct – I lived through it.
The NYT obit has a photo of him with a flat stomach.
Right, I didn’t see that one till I had scrolled down farther. (He was comparatively non-chubby in 1971 although I wouldn’t call his stomach “flat” then)
One thing, I think, is incontrovertible: he improved the quality of the Met orchestra by orders of magnitude. Or, at minimum: the quality of the orchestra improved by orders of magnitude during his tenure.
As for the sordid aspects: I first heard of them in the early 1980s, from a friend who was a grad student at an East Coast university and whose father was on the Met’s board of directors. It’s hearsay, so I won’t repeat the details, but I personally believe the source (who thenceforth refused to attend any Met performance led by Levine).
The issue of moral failure combined with artistic greatness is a vexed one. Should one refuse to listen to the music of Gesualdo, a murderer, or that of any number of composers who were anti-Semitic to varying degrees? Should one refuse to view the visual art of, say, Bernini, who had his servant disfigure his mistress for her infidelity? I, for one, listen to their music and admire their art without condoning their behavior; but it’s up to each to choose his or her own course.
Levine’s artistic achievements are what they are and they’re not going anyplace. For one thing, as an opera conductor, his recordings are not just his. They also represent the work of some of the greatest singers of the 2nd half of the 20th century and their work deserves to be heard and appreciated.
Time will judge Levine. I think how we view problematic artists has a lot to do with whether we are still dealing directly with the damage they’ve done or whether the repugnance they might cause us to feel has been buffered by time. A few decades from now perhaps people will be able to separate the work from the man and judge it on it’s own. Right now, with the man still so recent a presence in our world, that can be a lot to ask.
“Domingo once said. “But the other places do not offer the opportunity to work with Jim.” ”
A bit of an unfortunate quote.
In the 90’s up to 2006 and the arrival of chorus master Donald Palumbo the Met chorus was horrible. Ghastly. Palumbo turned into one of the best on the planet. Same singers, different approach. Amazing.
If James Levine was such a great musical genius why didn’t he fix it a lot earlier. Did he even notice? All he was ever concerned about was bringing the group closer to the pit causing re-staging headaches for directors.*
(DP came when Gelb took over but I don’t know if he had anything to do with it. *Conductors have the final word in opera, not directors.)
I’m pretty sure that Palumbo was a Gelb hire.
And yes, the Met Chorus used to be awful and everybody knew it.
And Levine’s attention at the Met definitely wained in the 1990s as he pursued appointments with orchestras (and I always assumed that the Met Orchestra concerts at Carnegie Hall was a vehicle to help shore up his symphonic conducting credentials).
His symphonic conducting credentials, in my opinion, were worse than terrible. At least based on what I heard in Boston over 7 seasons.
Tim Page writes that his debut at age 10 was Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 2. Anthony Tommasini writes that it was No. 1. Tommasini’s obit already has 3 corrections appended so I’m going to guess he’s wrong on the concerto too…..
This obit is a disgrace, especially considering the paper’s editor, Marty Baron, was the head of the Globe when they so bravely fought to uncover the Catholic church’s sex abuse and legal/PR coverup. Levine was a bona fide sex pest, ruined lives, and was never held to account.
Tim Page, whatever nice phrases he may be able to assemble about music, gives us 2,397 words, 229 of which make mostly oblique references to the criminal sexual abuse scandals. This is a whitewashing par excellence and turns my stomach, as someone who is not only a musician, but who also worked in the nonprofit world advocating for survivors of abuse. The Post is my hometown paper. Tim Page is a good writer. But it boggles my mind that page, or his boss at the WaPo, would let this get published.