James Levine: Conductor and Scandal April 02 2021
The death of American conductor James Levine in March 2021 is
inevitably marked by renewed discussion of the termination of his contract at the Metropolitan Opera due to his sexually abusive and harassing conduct towards vulnerable artists in the early stages of their careers throughout his professional life. It is impossible to look at his achievements in conducting opera and classical music without additional mention of the decades of allegations of sexual abuse that follow him.
Early Life and Career
Born in Cincinatti in June 1943, his family was musical. His grandfather had been a synagogue cantor, and his father was a violinist and dance band leader before entering the clothing business. His mother was briefly a Broadway actress. Levine made his debut as a pianist early, playing Felix Mendelssohn's Second Piano Concerto at the age of 10. At 18, Levine went to the Juilliard School of Music in New York, and joined the American Conductors Project on graduation in 1964.
James Levine and Van Cliburn, Marlboro Festival, 1956
Levine's early career saw a rapid rise in his profile, with an apprenticeship to George Szell at the Cleveland Orchestra from 1964 to 1965, leading to him remaining as the orchestra's assistant conductor until 1970. During this period, he also made notable conducting debuts with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Welsh National Opera, and San Francisco Opera. Teaching positions included the Cleveland Institute of Music, Meadow Brook School of Music, and summer work at the Ravinia Festival in Illinois. He also had a long-standing association with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, following a last-minute substitution for an ailing Istvan Kertesz, which led to some highly praised recordings.
On 5th June 1971, he made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York. Having been appointed principal conductor the following February, Levine was music director of the company from 1975. He later became the company's first artistic director for the period between 1986 and 2004.
By 2005, James Levine was the highest paid conductor in America. His combined salary from the Met and the Boston Symphony Orchestra was around $3.5 million.
His time in New York saw the Metropolitan Opera expand its activities significantly. The orchestra began to record and undertake concert series, with chamber ensembles performing at Carnegie Hall. The ensemble itself toured extensively, both at home and abroad. So significant was the Met's elevation in profile, that when Peter Gelb was appointed General Manager in 2006, he stated that Levine's position at the company was secure for as long as he wished to make music with them. Levine's salary from the Met alone in 2010 was over $2 million.
Boston Symphony Orchestra
James Levine had made his debut with the BSO in 1972, and was made music director in 2001 for the 2004/5 season.
His appointment was not without controversy within the orchestra and the players themselves. A condition of Levine's contract was that there should be flexibility over rehearsal time, at his discretion. Although this allowed for additional time to prepare particularly challenging and new works, a report on his first season in 2005 shows that the players were experiencing significant increases in physical stress due to the demands placed upon them.
The other contentious point during his tenure at the Boston Symphony Orchestra was that he rarely attended auditions for new players - in fact, by 2005, he had only attended two out of 16 such sessions. His response was that "the audition isn't everything", and that he was more interested in seeing how a musician would fit in the ensemble over a probationary period.
The mid-period of his initial contract saw an increase in his health problems. He fell onstage in 2006, resulting in a torn rotator cuff, and after it became apparent in 2010 he was working without a contract (having not signed an extension), he left the Boston Symphony Orchestra in September 2011. Levine did not work there again.
James Levine also worked extensively in Europe, including with
Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic Orchestras, and at the Bayreuth Festival, and also in London with the Philharmonia Orchestra. He was a regular conductor at the Salzburg Festival from 1975 onwards, and his five-year stint as conductor of the Munich Philharmonic from 1999 to 2004 was credited with improving the overall quality of the ensemble.
Levine was also instrumental in starting several training programs, including the Lindemann Young Artists Development Program at the Met. Alumni include Christine Goerke, Stephanie Blythe, Charles Castronovo, and Nathan Gunn.
He also conducted the Verbier Festival Orchestra, the student ensemble at the Swiss summer festival for the period 1999 to 2006. His association with Tanglewood again showed his commitment to advanced level teaching for the "next generation so that they don't have to spend time reinventing the wheel". Levine led and had long associations with the Vienna Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony, among many other important orchestras.
In addition to his shoulder injury in 2006, Levine suffered from a variety of other ailments. The "intermittent tremors" that were seen to trouble him from 2006 were actually Parkinson's Disease - something he had suffered from for 12 years already, and did not admit to in public for another decade after that.
Alongside issues caused by Parkinson's, he had a kidney removed due to a cancerous cyst, and emergency surgery for a herniated disk in his back, within a year of each other.
Further back surgery came in 2010, and Levine missed the end of the Boston Symphony Orchestra season as a consequence. The following year, he fell down a flight of stairs and fractured his spine. He would not conduct again for two years.
On his return, conducting the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, he directed from a wheelchair, and a platform designed to accommodate it. Adaptations in the pit at the Met Opera allowed him to return to work there too.
Levine died of natural causes on 9th March 2021. The announcement was made by Len Horovitz, his personal physician, on the 17th.
Allegations of Sexual Misconduct
Unfortunately, Levine's story doesn't end there, with a review of his many accomplishments. There is credible evidence that Mr. Levine was engaged in abusive behavior, and had sexually abused four young men in their mid-teens between the 1960s and 1990s.
In late 2017 came the revelation that a police report existed from October of the previous year, alleging that Levine had molested a male teenager for some years, beginning when he was guest conductor at the Ravinia Festival.
Of the four accusations, one dates from 1986, when the accuser was just 16 years old. The accuser informed the Lake Forest Police Department in Illinois in 2016, who announced that while it would be a criminal charge in the state today, 16 was the age of consent in Illinois at the time of the alleged offence. They had little choice but to be bound to apply the law that was in place at the time of the alleged offence.
The three other allegations against Levine indicate a long-standing abuse of a position of power, coming from former students of the Meadow Brook School of Music and dating to 1968, when Levine was a 25 year old faculty member.
It became apparent that the Metropolitan Opera had known of at least one sexual molestation allegation dating to 1979, which it had dismissed as groundless. Peter Gelb, the Met's general manager, had also been aware of the 2016 allegations, having been contacted directly by the police. No action was taken, either in terms of an internal investigation, or to suspend Levine, for over a year.
On 3rd December 2017, the Met finally acted, cancelled all of Levine's upcoming engagements. A day later, the Ravinia Festival also distanced itself, also ending Levine's five-year contract with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Cancellations continued; the BSO stated he would never be contracted by them again, and Levine's old alma mater, the Juilliard School, replaced him in a performance in early 2018. Cinema screenings of Met productions, and even radio broadcasts of performances featuring Levine, were also cancelled.
Levine denied all allegations of being engaged in sexually abusive activities, and in March 2018, Levine sued the Met for breach of contract and defamation, seeking a sum of $5.8 million in damages. The lack of a 'morals clause' in Levine's contract meant that he and the Met settled at a sum of $3.5 million.
James Levine is not the first, and will not be the last major figure in the classical music industry to abuse position or rank to take predatory advantage of others, and to also use their position to hide those abuses. His alleged crimes were the stuff of gossip and warnings to those who might be vulnerable for over four decades - an open secret within the industry.
As impressive as Levine's achievements and legacy might be, it is impossible to separate the man's artistic output from the numerous allegations of sexual assault made against him for such a very long time.
Written by Zoe South, edited by Nestor Masckauchan
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