Boston Symphony Orchestra music director James Levine appears during a performance at Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass., on July 7, 2006. Levine, who ruled over the Metropolitan Opera for 4 1/2 decades before being eased out when his health declined and then fired for sexual improprieties, died March 9, 2021 in Palm Springs, Calif., of natural causes, his physician of 17 years, Dr. Len Horovitz, said Wednesday, March 17. He was 77. (AP)
Boston Symphony Orchestra music director James Levine appears during a performance at Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass., on July 7, 2006. Levine, who ruled over the Metropolitan Opera for 4 1/2 decades before being eased out when his health declined and then fired for sexual improprieties, died March 9, 2021 in Palm Springs, Calif., of natural causes, his physician of 17 years, Dr. Len Horovitz, said Wednesday, March 17. He was 77. (AP)

James Levine, Metropolitan Opera conductor for four decades, dies at 77

James Levine, who polished New York’s Metropolitan Opera into a world-renowned institution during four decades as conductor and director until he was fired for sexual harassment, has died. He was 77.
Bloomberg |
PUBLISHED ON MAR 19, 2021 11:44 AM IST

James Levine, who polished New York’s Metropolitan Opera into a world-renowned institution during four decades as conductor and director until he was fired for sexual harassment, has died. He was 77. He died on March 9 in Palm Springs, California, according to the New York Times, citing Dr. Len Horovitz, his physician. Levine’s health problems had included Parkinson’s disease.

A child prodigy on the piano, Levine became an ambassador for opera in the U.S. and was often compared to another American-born world-class conductor, Leonard Bernstein, who died in 1990.

His marathon tenure at the Met elevated the opera company into the ranks of the world’s elite. He made his debut in 1971 conducting “Tosca” and became principal conductor in 1973, music director in 1976 and the company’s first-ever artistic director in 1986. He led more than 2,500 performances of 85 different operas.

The Met had “blundered through seasons of painful disarray” before Levine became chief conductor in 1973, and he “moved decisively to remold the orchestra and chorus into proudly energized ensembles,” Joseph Horowitz wrote in his 2005 book, “Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall.”

World Tours

Levine inaugurated the “Metropolitan Opera Presents” television show for the Public Broadcasting System, founded the Met’s Young Artist Development Program and, in 1991, began leading the Met’s orchestra on world tours.

His reputation plummeted in late 2017 when the Metropolitan Opera suspended Levine amid accusations of sexual abuse. An outside law firm investigated the allegations, which Levine called “unfounded.” He was fired in March 2018 for “sexually abusive and harassing conduct,” according to a statement from the opera company.

He conducted his final performance in the orchestra pit as the Met’s music director in May 2016. Because of his reliance on a motorized wheelchair, he couldn’t make it from the pit to the stage for the audience’s prolonged ovation, the New York Times reported.

His health issues over the years included chronic back pain from spinal stenosis, which compresses the spinal cord. In September 2011, the Met said Levine had suffered damage to one of his vertebrae in a fall and withdrew from performances.

Boston Symphony

Starting in 2004, while still leading the Met, Levine took on the added responsibilities of music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He resigned that post in 2011 as his health problems worsened.

He was known to have little time for, or interest in, anything non-musical, using his rare vacations to study new scores.

“For me, music is like eating, breathing or sleeping,” he said in an interview for a 1983 magazine profile that landed him on the cover of Time as “America’s Top Maestro.”

Instantly recognizable for his halo of frizzy hair, Levine nonetheless was controlled and minimalist in his movements as conductor, serving up none of the grand gestures that can turn an audience’s attention from the music to the maestro.

“I started off fairly gestural, but I’ve tried to make myself obsolete in the performance,” Levine said in a 2005 interview with National Public Radio. “I don’t like the audience to have to go through a middleman interpreting what the piece is, expressively, by his gesture.”

Translation Controversy

As opera companies began offering real-time streaming translations of non-English operas, Levine famously declared in 1985 that the Met would introduce that technology “over my dead body.”

A decade later, he gave his grudging blessing when the Met introduced a translation system that employs individual seatback screens that can be turned on or off. He said in an interview for a 1998 biography that the “unobtrusive and private” seatback system was far superior to the supertitles that some companies project on a screen above the stage.

James Lawrence Levine -- the name rhymes with “divine” -- was born June 23, 1943, and grew up in Cincinnati, the oldest of three children in a musically inclined household. His father, Larry, led big bands in the 1930s before entering his family’s clothing business. His mother, Helen, was a onetime actress on Broadway.

Child Prodigy

Levine showed skill at the piano at 2 and started lessons at 4. Within a few years he was displaying his talents for Thor Johnson, conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony, with which Levine made his debut at 10.

Starting in 1957, he spent 14 summers studying and performing at the Aspen Festival and School of Music in Colorado.

After graduating high school in 1961, Levine moved to New York City to enroll full-time at the Juilliard School, where he studied conducting.

Cleveland Orchestra conductor George Szell saw Levine in action in 1964 and invited him to become assistant conductor in Cleveland, where Levine worked until 1970.

He was music director of the Ravinia Festival, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, from 1973 to 1993, chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic from 1999 to 2004, and conductor laureate of the Swiss-based UBS Verbier Festival Orchestra since its founding in 2000.

He was a guest conductor of major orchestras around the globe and also performed piano recitals.

When he succeeded Seiji Ozawa in Boston, he became the 14th music director in that orchestra’s 125-year history, the first born in America. The posting meant Levine also directed the annual music festival at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony’s summer home in the Berkshires. Levine’s role at the Met reverted to music director, from artistic director, to free up time for his work in Boston. Levine never married.


This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.
SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
Close
SHARE
Story Saved
OPEN APP