|Born||June 23, 1943|
Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.
|Died||March 9, 2021 (aged 77)|
Palm Springs, California, U.S.
|Known for||Music director of the Metropolitan Opera|
James Lawrence Levine (//; June 23, 1943 – March 9, 2021) was an American conductor and pianist. He was music director of the Metropolitan Opera (the "Met") from 1976 to 2016. He was terminated from all his positions and affiliations with the Met on March 12, 2018, over sexual misconduct allegations, which he denied.
Levine held leadership positions with the Ravinia Festival, the Munich Philharmonic, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 1980 he started the Lindemann Young Artists Development Program, and trained singers, conductors, and musicians for professional careers.
After taking an almost two-year health-related hiatus from conducting from 2011 to 2013, during which time he held artistic and administrative planning sessions at the Met, and led training of the Lindemann Young Artists, Levine retired as the Met's full-time Music Director following the 2015–16 season to become Music Director Emeritus.
Levine was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, to a Jewish, musical family. His maternal grandfather was a composer and a cantor in a synagogue; his father, Lawrence, was a violinist who led dance bands under the name "Larry Lee" before entering his father's clothing business; and his mother, Helen Goldstein Levine, was briefly an actress on Broadway, performing as "Helen Golden". He had a brother, Tom, who was two years younger, who followed him to New York City from Cincinnati in 1974, and with whom he was very close. He employed Tom as his business assistant, looking after his affairs, arranging his rehearsal schedules, fielding queries, scouting out places to live, meeting with accountants, and accompanying Levine on trips to Europe. Tom was also a painter. He also had a younger sister, Janet, who is a marriage counselor.
He began to play the piano as a small child. On February 21, 1954, at age 10, Levine made his concert debut as soloist playing Felix Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 2 at a youth concert of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in Ohio.
Levine subsequently studied music with Walter Levin, first violinist in the LaSalle Quartet. In 1956 he took piano lessons with Rudolf Serkin at the Marlboro Music School in Vermont. The next year he began to study piano with Rosina Lhévinne at the Aspen Music School. He graduated from Walnut Hills High School, a magnet school in Cincinnati. He entered the Juilliard School of Music in New York City in 1961, and took courses in conducting with Jean Morel. He graduated from Juilliard in 1964, and joined the American Conductors project connected with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
Levine lived in The San Remo on Central Park West in New York City.
From 1964 to 1965, Levine served as an apprentice to George Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra. He then served as the Orchestra's assistant conductor until 1970. That year, he also made debuts as guest conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra at its summer home at Robin Hood Dell, the Welsh National Opera, and the San Francisco Opera. From 1965 to 1972 he concurrently taught at the Cleveland Institute of Music. In the summers, he worked at the Meadow Brook School of Music in Michigan and at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Illinois, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. During that time, the charismatic Levine developed a devoted following of young musicians and music lovers.
In June 1971, Levine was called in at the last moment to substitute for István Kertész, to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Mahler's Second Symphony for the Ravinia Festival's opening concert of their 36th season. This concert began a long association with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. From 1973 to 1993 he was music director of the Ravinia Festival, succeeding the late Kertész. He made numerous recordings with the orchestra, including the symphonies and German Requiem of Johannes Brahms, and major works of Gershwin, Holst, Berg, Beethoven, Mozart, and others. In 1990, at the request of Roy E. Disney, he arranged the music and conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in the soundtrack of Fantasia 2000, released by Walt Disney Pictures. From 1974 to 1978, Levine also served as music director of the Cincinnati May Festival.
Levine made his Metropolitan Opera debut a few weeks before he turned 28, on June 5, 1971, leading a June Festival performance of Puccini's Tosca. After further appearances with the company, he was named its principal conductor in February 1972. He became its music director in 1975. In 1983, he served as conductor and musical director for the Franco Zeffirelli screen adaptation of Verdi's La Traviata, which featured the Met orchestra and chorus members. He became the company's first artistic director in 1986, and relinquished the title in 2004. In 2005, Levine's combined salary from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Met made him the highest-paid conductor in the country, at $3.5 million.
During Levine's tenure, the Metropolitan Opera orchestra expanded its activities into recording and concert series for the orchestra and chamber ensembles from the orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Levine led the Metropolitan Opera on many domestic and international tours. For the 25th anniversary of his Met debut, Levine conducted the world premiere of John Harbison's The Great Gatsby, commissioned for the occasion. On his appointment as general manager of the Met, Peter Gelb emphasized that Levine was welcome to remain as long as he wanted to direct music there. Levine was paid $2.1 million by the Met in 2010.
Following a series of injuries that began with a fall, Levine's health problems led to his withdrawal from many Metropolitan Opera engagements. After a May 2011 performance of Wagner's Die Walküre, Levine formally withdrew from all engagements at the Met. After two years of physical therapy, he returned to conducting with a May 2013 concert with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. On September 25, 2013, Levine conducted his first Met performance since May 2011, in a revival production of Mozart's Così fan tutte. He was scheduled to conduct three productions at the opera house and three at Carnegie Hall in the 2013–14 season. On April 14, 2016, Met management announced that Levine would step down from his position as music director at the end of the 2015–16 season. Levine was paid $1.8 million by the Met for the 2015–16 season. He assumed the new title of Music Director Emeritus, which he held until December 2017, when in the wake of allegations that Levine had sexually abused four young men, the Met suspended its relationship with him and canceled all his scheduled performances with the company.
Levine first conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) in April 1972. In October 2001, he was named its music director effective with the 2004–05 season, with an initial contract of five years, becoming the first American-born conductor to head the BSO.
One unique condition that Levine negotiated was increased flexibility of the time allotted for rehearsal, allowing the orchestra additional time to prepare more challenging works. After the start of his tenure, the orchestra also established an "Artistic Initiative Fund" of about $40 million to fund the more expensive of his projects.
One criticism of Levine during his BSO tenure is that he did not attend many orchestra auditions. A 2005 article reported that he had attended two out of 16 auditions during his tenure up to that time. Levine responded that he has the ability to provide input on musician tenure decisions after the initial probationary period, and that it is difficult to know how well a given player will fit the given position until that person has had a chance to work with the orchestra: "My message is the audition isn't everything."
Another 2005 report stated that during Levine's first season as music director, the greater workload from the demands of playing more unfamiliar and contemporary music had increased physical stress on some of the BSO musicians. Levine and the players met to discuss this, and he agreed to program changes to lessen these demands. He received general critical praise for revitalizing the orchestra's quality and repertoire since the beginning of his tenure.
Levine experienced ongoing health problems, starting with an onstage fall in 2006 that resulted in a torn rotator cuff and started discussion of how long Levine's tenure with the BSO would last. In April 2010, in the wake of his continuing health problems, it emerged that Levine had not officially signed a contract extension, so that he was the BSO's music director without a signed contract. On March 2, 2011, the BSO announced Levine's resignation as music director effective September 2011, after the Orchestra's Tanglewood season.
Working on a commission from Levine and the BSO, the composer John Harbison dedicated his Symphony No. 6 "in friendship and gratitude" to him, whose premature departure from the orchestra prevented him from conducting the premiere.
After allegations of his abusing a number of young men came out in December 2017 the BSO said Levine "will never be employed or contracted by the BSO at any time in the future".
Levine's BSO contract limited his guest appearances with American orchestras, but he still conducted regularly in Europe, with the Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, and at the Bayreuth Festival. Levine was a regular guest with the Philharmonia of London and the Staatskapelle Dresden. Beginning in 1975 he conducted regularly at the Salzburg Festival and the annual July Verbier Festival. From 1999 to 2004, he was chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic, and was credited with improving the quality of instrumental ensemble during his tenure.
Levine initiated the Lindemann Young Artists Development Program at the Metropolitan Opera in 1980, a professional training program for graduated singers with, today, many famous alumni.
Levine was conductor of the UBS Verbier Festival Orchestra, the student resident orchestra at the annual summer music festival in Verbier, Switzerland, from 1999 through 2006. It was Levine's first long-term commitment to a student orchestra since becoming music director at the Met.
After becoming music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Levine also served as music director of the Tanglewood Music Center, the BSO's acclaimed summer academy at Tanglewood for student instrumentalists, singers, composers, and conductors. There he conducted the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, directed fully staged opera performances with student singers, and gave master classes for singers and conductors.
Levine said in an interview:
At my age, you are naturally inclined towards teaching. You want to teach what you have learned to the next generation so that they don't have to spend time reinventing the wheel. I was lucky that I met the right mentors and teachers at the right moment. I love working with young musicians and singers, and those at the Tanglewood Music Center are unequivocally some of the finest and most talented in the world.
He continued to work with young students even when his health issues kept him from conducting. He was awarded the Lotus Award ("for inspiration to young musicians") from Young Concert Artists. Anthony Tommasini wrote in The New York Times in 2016: "The aspiring singers in the Met's young artist development program, one of many important ventures Mr. Levine started, must understand how lucky they are to have, as a teacher and mentor, a musician who even in his 20s worked at the Met with giants like Jon Vickers and Renata Tebaldi."
Levine experienced recurrent health issues beginning in 2006, including sciatica and what he called "intermittent tremors". On March 1, 2006, he tripped and fell onstage during a standing ovation after a performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and tore the rotator cuff in his right shoulder, leaving the remaining subscription concerts in Boston to his assistant conductor at the time. Later that month, Levine underwent surgery to repair the injury. He returned to the podium on July 7, 2006.
Levine withdrew from the majority of the Tanglewood 2008 summer season because of surgery required to remove a kidney with a malignant cyst. He returned to the podium in Boston on September 24, 2008, at Symphony Hall.
On September 29, 2009, it was announced that Levine would undergo emergency back surgery for a herniated disk. He missed three weeks of engagements.
In March 2010, the BSO announced that Levine would miss the remainder of the Boston Symphony season because of back pain. The Met also announced, on April 4, 2010, that he was withdrawing from the remainder of his performances for the season. According to the Met, Levine was required to have "corrective surgery for an ongoing lower back problem". He returned to conducting at the Met and the BSO at the beginning of the 2010–11 season, but in February 2011 canceled his Boston engagements for the rest of the season.
In the summer of 2011, Levine underwent further surgery on his back. In September 2011, after he fell down a flight of stairs, fractured his spine, and injured his back while on vacation in Vermont, the Met announced that he would not conduct at the Met at least for the rest of 2011.
After two years of surgery and physical therapy, Levine returned to conducting for the first time on May 19, 2013, in a concert with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Levine conducted from a motorized wheelchair, with a special platform designed to accommodate it, which could rise and descend like an elevator. He returned to the Met on September 24, 2013. The same type of platform was present in the Met orchestra pit for his September 2013 return performance.
For many years, both Levine and the Met denied as unfounded the rumors that Levine had Parkinson's disease. As New York magazine reported: "The conductor states flatly that the condition is not Parkinson's disease, as people had speculated in 'that silly Times piece.'" But in 2016 both he and the Met finally admitted that the rumors were true, and that Levine had in fact had the disease since 1994. The Washington Post noted: "It wasn't just the illnesses, but the constant alternation between concealment and an excess of revelation that kept so much attention focused on them and away from the music."
Levine died in his Palm Springs home on March 9, 2021. Len Horovitz, his personal physician, announced Levine's death on March 17 and said that he had died of natural causes.
Four men accused Levine of sexually molesting them (starting when they were 16, 17, 17, and 20 years old), from the 1960s to the 1990s.
On December 2, 2017, it was publicly revealed that an October 2016 police report detailed that Levine had allegedly sexually molested a male teenager for years. The alleged sexual abuse began while Levine was guest conductor at the Ravinia Festival, outside Chicago, where Levine was music director for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's summer residencies from 1973 to 1993.
One accuser said that in the summer of 1968, when he was a 17-year-old high school student attending Meadow Brook School of Music in Michigan, Levine (then a 25-year-old faculty member) had sexual contact with a student. When he next saw Levine, the accuser told him that he would not repeat the sexual behavior, but asked if they could continue to make music as they had before; Levine said no. The accuser later played bass in the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra for decades and became a professor.
A second accuser said that that same summer, Levine had sexual contact with a 17-year-old student and that Levine then initiated with the teenager a number of sexual encounters that have since haunted him. He said (and another male corroborated, on the condition of anonymity) that the next year, in Cleveland, where Levine was an assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, Levine on several occasions had sexual contact with that student and other students.
A third accuser, a violinist and pianist who grew up in Illinois near the Ravinia Music Festival, a summer program for aspiring musicians of which Levine was music director from 1971 to 1993, said Levine sexually abused him beginning when the accuser was 16 years old (and Levine was in his 40s) in 1986. He had previously detailed his accusation in 2016 in a report to the Lake Forest Police Department in Illinois. On December 8, the department announced that Levine could not be charged criminally in Illinois because the accuser was 16 years old at the time, and while today a 16-year-old is not considered old enough to consent to such conduct in Illinois (he must be 17, or 18 in cases in which the suspect is in a position of trust, authority, or supervision in relation to the victim), at the time that was the statutory age of consent. The department noted: "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."
On December 4, a fourth man, who later had a long career as a violinist in the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, said he had been abused by Levine beginning in 1968, when he was 20 years old and attending the Meadow Brook School of Music. Levine was a teacher in the summer program.
The New York Times said that the Met had known of at least one sexual abuse allegation as early as 1979, but dismissed it as baseless. Furthermore, the Met (including its General Manager Peter Gelb, who was contacted directly by a police detective about the allegations in October 2016) had been aware of both the third accuser's abuse allegations since they were made in the 2016 police report, and of the attendant police investigation. But the Met did not suspend Levine or launch an investigation of its own until over a year later, in December 2017.
In response to the December 2017 news article, the Met announced that it would investigate the sexual abuse allegations dating to the 1980s that were set forth in the 2016 police report. On December 3, after two additional males came forward with allegations of abuse, the Met suspended its ties with Levine, and canceled all upcoming engagements with him. A fourth accuser came forward the following day.
For its part, the Ravinia Festival, in April 2017, six months after the criminal investigation of Levine began, created an honorific title for Levine—"Conductor Laureate"—and signed him to a five-year renewable contract to begin in 2018. On December 4, 2017, the Ravinia Festival severed all ties with Levine, and terminated his five-year contract to lead the Chicago Symphony there.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra said Levine "will never be employed or contracted by the BSO at any time in the future". The Juilliard School, where Levine had studied, replaced him in a February 2018 performance where he was scheduled to lead the Juilliard Orchestra and singers from the Met's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. On December 5, the Cincinnati May Festival canceled Levine's appearance in May. On December 7, in New Plymouth, New Zealand, the cinema chain Event Cinemas abruptly cancelled the screening of a Met production of Levine conducting Mozart's Die Zauberflöte. On December 8, Fred Child, host of the classical music radio show Performance Today, wrote that Levine "is accused of inflicting grievous harm to living members of our musical community. Out of respect for these people and their wounds, I choose not to broadcast performances featuring Mr. Levine on the podium."
Classical music blogger, former Village Voice music critic, and Juilliard School faculty member Greg Sandow said he had been contacted by three men over the years who said that Levine had abused them, and that reports of sexual abuse by Levine were "widely talked about" for 40 years. Sandow said further: "Everybody in the classical music business at least since the 1980s has talked about Levine as a sex abuser. The investigation should have been done decades ago." Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic Justin Davidson mused on the culture website of New York magazine, "James Levine's career has clearly ended" and "I'm not sure the Met can survive Levine's disgrace." Similarly, drama critic Terry Teachout of The Wall Street Journal wrote an article called "The Levine Cataclysm; How allegations against James Levine of sexual misconduct with teenagers could topple the entire Metropolitan Opera". The Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette noted: "The Met has known about these allegations for at least a year, and are only investigating them now that they are public", and opined on her Facebook page that the Met has "quite probably spent years protecting its star conductor from just this kind of allegation". Music critic Tim Pfaff of the LGBT Bay Area Reporter wrote that The New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini had the "weirdest" reaction, "lamenting the ugliness of it all under a...headline, 'Should I Put Away My James Levine Recordings?' His conclusion was that he and his husband...should move those recordings from their living room."
The Met orchestra musicians applauded the courage of the four men who came forward with accusations that Levine had abused them. Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, which represents the Met's orchestra and Levine, said, "We are horrified and sickened by the recently reported allegations of sexual abuse by Mr. Levine."
Five days after news of the accusations by the four men broke, Levine spoke about them for the first time, and called them "unfounded". The accusers stood by their claims, with one saying, "I will take a lie-detector test. Will he?" Six days later, music critic Arthur Kaptainis wrote in the Montreal Gazette that Levine's denial "had little effect".
On March 12, 2018, the Met announced that it had fired Levine. Its investigation found Levine had "engaged in sexually abusive and harassing conduct towards vulnerable artists in the early stages of their careers".
Levine sued the Metropolitan Opera in New York State Supreme Court for breach of contract and defamation on March 15, 2018, three days after the company fired him, seeking more than $5.8 million in damages. The Met denied Levine's allegations. A year later, a New York State Supreme Court judge dismissed most of Levine's claims, but ruled that the Met and its attorney had made defamatory statements.
The Metropolitan Opera and Levine announced a settlement on undisclosed terms in August 2019. In September 2020, the size of the payout was indirectly exposed by annual disclosure statements required for nonprofits; Levine had received $3.5 million in the settlement. It is speculated that he was able to negotiate such a large settlement due to the lack of a morals clause in his contract with the Met.
Levine made many audio and video recordings. He recorded extensively with many orchestras, and especially often with the Metropolitan Opera. His performance of Aida with Leontyne Price, her last in opera, was preserved on video and may be seen at the Met's own online archive of performances. Of particular note are his performances of Wagner's complete Der Ring des Nibelungen. A studio recording made for Deutsche Grammophon from 1987 to 1989 is on compact disc, and a 1989 live performance of the Ring is available on DVD. He also appears on several dozen albums as a pianist, collaborating with such singers as Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, Christa Ludwig, and Dawn Upshaw, as well as performing the chamber music of Franz Schubert and Francis Poulenc, among others.
Levine was featured in the animated Disney film Fantasia 2000. He conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the soundtrack recordings of all the music in the film (with the exception of one segment from the original 1940 Fantasia). Levine is also seen in the film talking briefly with Mickey Mouse, just as his predecessor Leopold Stokowski did in the original film.
Among the awards listed in his Met biography are:
In addition, his biography says Levine has received honorary doctorates from the University of Cincinnati, the New England Conservatory of Music, Northwestern University, the State University of New York, and the Juilliard School. On May 3, 2018, SUNY revoked Levine's honorary doctorate in response to the sexual abuse allegations against him.
Levine served as Music Director of the Met from 1976 to 2016, when he assumed the position of Music Director Emeritus.