James Levine was not a great man with a single tragic flaw.
He was an almost completely horrible person, with a single, tragic talent.
Ever since I heard the news, I’ve had a voice on one shoulder screaming “don’t write about James Levine.” And on the other shoulder, another voice is saying “write about James Levine.”
First, I don’t want to hurt or offend the many dear friends and colleagues close to me who admired him. Cincinnati, which is like a musical second home to me, was Levine’s home town. His mentor was the first violinist in the LaSalle Quartet, Walter Levin – I studied with the quartet’s second violinist and cellist. Many people I love and admire loved and respected Levine. I am sorry if this post causes them hurt or offence.
But, here I am, writing about James Levine.
Part One – “Stories about James Levine”
Everyone in the classical music business over the last forty years has heard the phrase “the stories about James Levine.”
Here are two stories which might not be quite what you think of when you hear that phrase.
A friend of mine was, for a time, producer and engineer of the radio broadcasts of the orchestra at Verbier when Levine was conducting regularly there. As is the case with the broadcasts of most festivals and orchestras, where there is more than one performance, either the producer or a member of the musical staff (at the Cincinnati Symphony it was usually one of us on the junior conducting staff who had been in the audience for all the performances) will select what they think are the best options and run those by the maestro before the ‘broadcast performance’ is edited together.
The situation my friend found himself working with Levine in was truly bizarre. At the end of each run of performances he would go to the maestro’s office. There he would see Levine and his brother Tom. My friend was not allowed to speak to Levine directly, but would say to Tom something like “I thought the first movement was the best on Sunday and the other three better on Saturday.” Then Tom would turn to James Levine and say “_________ says “the first movement was the best on Sunday and the other three better on Saturday.””
Bear in mind, my friend is in the room.
Jimmy would then say to Tom “Tell ______ that I would like to use the first and last movements from Sunday and the two middle movements from Saturday.” After which, Tom would turn to my friend and say “Maestro Levine says to use the first and last movements from Sunday and the two middle movements from Saturday.” My friend would confirm to Tom that, of course, that was a far better selection. Those would, indeed, be the movements he would use. Tom would relay that to Levine, who would nod silently. After which, my friend would be dismissed. And this is how he treated one of the top Tonmeisters in Europe, not some piddling assistant conductor. Even a Russian Czar would have been impressed.
Here’s another story.
A different friend worked in the classical department at a Tower Records in a major American city. One morning, he and his colleague arrived at work to a large box and a message saying “Levine’s Mahler 3 is out today. Put up this cardboard display for the LPs and the life-sized cutout of Levine at the top of the escalator before opening.” Many of you may still remember the halcyon days of record stores, where the classical managers presided over their departments with equal parts commanding knowledge and total authority. So it was in this Tower. These guys were used to deciding which Mahler 3’s were worthy of pushing based on their knowledge of 100 other versions. Their view was that Levine was not a good Mahler conductor, that his 3rd probably sucked, and they were not, in any case, going to race to put up all that tacky display stuff until they’d at least listened to it. Well, the shop opened at 10, and at 10:15, James Levine came scooting up the escalator looking for the life-sized cardboard cut-out of himself. He got to the top, stopped and stood there, his eyes narrowed, looking in vain for the missing shrine to his genius. He then turned around and left.
Minutes later, my friend got a phone call from Tower’s corporate office. Levine had called his manager, the manager had called the record company, and the record company had called Tower. This is how fast things can move when a ‘great man’s’ ego doesn’t get the feeding he thinks it deserves. The air was blue as the national head of the classical division explained in no uncertain terms that this was a world-class screw up, and that they had exactly 45 minutes to get the display up. They, of course agreed.
They then took the LP bin, the cardboard cut-out and all the Mahler 3 LPs out to the dumpster and threw them all away. Sure enough, a little while later, Jimmy came up the escalator, looked around briefly with an even darker expression, then turned and left.
I tell these stories not to be glib, but to make a point. The reason I decided to listen to the “write about James Levine” voice was that I couldn’t stand the “great musician, great guy, pity about the scandals,” fake dualism anymore. James Levine wasn’t a great figure with a single tragic flaw. You can’t be a lifelong sexual predator, grooming, coercing, blackmailing, bribing and manipulating children into being repeatedly raped and humiliated if you have just one tragic flaw. He could also be arrogant and petty enough to refuse to speak to his own producer, and insecure enough to involve his own manager and the president of a record company in a dispute over a life-size card-board cutout of him not being displayed in a record store.
Part Two – Boston
I’ve seen people do a lot of stupid and reckless stuff in my life.
But I’ve never, ever seen anything as stupid, reckless and irresponsible as the decision to turn over the keys to the Boston Symphony to James Levine. And yet, in obituary after obituary, I see respected critics talking about how Levine revived a moribund orchestra or raised the standards of their playing to electrifying heights. By my reckoning, I heard the BSO play live four or five times in the mid-late 90s, including two performances with Ozawa, one by Andrew Davis and one with Bernard Haitink. I gotta say, the orchestra sounded pretty damn good in all of those. Maestro Ozawa deserves a lot more credit and respect than he gets for his work in Boston.
By the time Levine got that job, “stories about James Levine” had been universally known about in the music business for more than 20 years. There were entire countries where he was reportedly not allowed to travel, and others where he could not be in a room with minors under any circumstances (including a children’s choir in a concert hall). That the BSO appointed Levine under the circumstances has to have been the most astonishing failure of either judgement or due diligence in the history of the performing arts. I have very little sympathy for the Met in this story, but they can at least plead that, when they hired the 27-year-old Levine, they didn’t know or understand what he was. By the time the BSO appointed Levine, everyone in classical music knew what he was. I remember telling a colleague at the time “when this comes out, the BSO may well go out of business.” I literally couldn’t imagine how such a colossal failure of judgement, which had to be facilitated by dozens of senior management members and the board of directors, could not bring the whole thing down once the truth was known outside the industry.
Why risk the entire organisation, your professional reputation and the livelihood of all your musicians and team members for James Levine? The decision to appoint Levine had the potential to cost every member of that orchestra their job, their house, their health insurance, their retirement. And the people making that decision knew the risk they were taking. Is it even a risk, when your entire strategy boils down to the blind hope that American newspapers will continue not to report the worst kept secret in the music industry for the rest of eternity? That’s not a risk, that’s a death wish. And I just don’t think that Levine was a good enough symphonic conductor to merit such a risk. If he was really such a great conductor, why didn’t Berlin take him when Karajan died? Why didn’t Chicago choose him when Solti left? And on, and on…. In fact, other than Munich (who have long a soft spot for darkly crazy maesetri), no other orchestra that could afford him had ever wanted him as a music director.
The amazing thing under the circumstances was that Levine’s tenure in Boston was worse than I thought it would be, in ways I had never imagined. It was such a disaster that his criminality almost became a background issue. He demanded a FORTY MILLION DOLLAR “Jimmy is a genius” fund to pay for his ‘ambitious projects’ and required the players to agree to extra rehearsal time, but even in his first season, musicians began complaining that the maestro was spending those very expensive EXTRA rehearsals with his head buried in the score, sight-reading the music. Forty million dollars! Think how many commissions that could fund? How many scholarships? How many instruments for poor kids? That forty million could fund a world- class British professional chamber orchestra completely for anywhere from 10 to 90 years. Every musician, every staff member, every venue, every music hire. Has there ever been a year in classical music history when the total value of all the commissions paid to all the classical composers in the world combined added up to forty million dollars? Instead, they spent $40 million dollars so Levine could sight read in front of the BSO?
Levine’s much vaunted ‘commitment to new music’ at the BSO only really comprised two composers – Elliott Carter and Charles Wuorinen (with the notable exception of John Harbison’s Sixth Symphony). It is hard to imagine more forbidding repertoire for a symphonic audience, and listeners started staying home in droves. In one Carter performance, Levine reportedly got lost (Word on the street was that he turned two pages in a very difficult passage. It’s happened to me, and it happens to most conductors at some point.), and musicians describe Levine being unprepared and unaware of when they were faking.
There’s a long and necessary book to be written about Levine’s years in Boston. There are serious questions that need answering. How much money did he receive from the orchestra during his tenure and under what conditions? Was he paid for concerts he didn’t give? For seasons he wasn’t involved in? When he was injured and unable to conduct, did he help plan concerts? Raise money? Recruit board members? Teach? It is reported that in 2005, this great orchestra builder only attended 2 out of 16 auditions. How many did he attend in other years, if any? How was that forty million spent? What legacy did it create?
The wasted money, the repeated no-shows, the lack of interest the welfare of the institution… it beggars belief. His tenure apparently ended when he was so loopy on painkillers in a rehearsal that the musicians put their foot down in 2011 and said that had to be the last rehearsal. That decision probably saved the BSO, because it meant he was a fading memory by the time the US press finally broke their wall of silence on his criminal behavior in 2017. It also means that nobody involved in hiring Levine has faced any consequences for their decisions that I am aware of.
I’m not the only one to point out that the Met paid Levine $3.5 million in 2019, and the all the musicians in the orchestra not a penny since Covid. What is also worth pointing out is that Jimmy seemed just fine with that. What kind of “great colleague” sits on $3.5 million in blood money paid for with the innocence of children when his supposedly beloved orchestral colleagues are losing their homes right, left and centre? At the end of his life, the famously tough Lorin Maazel put much of his substantial wealth into supporting young musicians through his festival and his competition. Where was James Levine’s sense of duty and charity during Covid? Or in the preceding decades?
James Levine was not a great man with a single tragic flaw. He was an almost completely horrible person, with a single tragic talent.
Part Three – The Artistic Legacy
Was he the greatest American conductor of his generation?
He was very possibly the most gifted American performer of his generation. His ear, his memory, his knowledge of languages, his encyclopaedic knowledge of opera style and performance tradition are all legendary. He was a phenomenal pianist. But, for me, great musicians compose, explore and arrange. They research, they challenge assumptions, they create and they re-invent. He didn’t create, he didn’t compose, he didn’t expand the repertoire in a meaningful way through either the exploration of lost and unknown work, or through commissioning. He was, instead, the ultimate embodiment of the musical status quo, as was his overall leadership of the Met, which during his time was known for bland, middle of the road stagings.
I watched pretty much every Met broadcast he did on TV, and listened to hundreds of others on the radio. Looking back, everything he did was well-played and well-sung, and that’s something I can’t say about my own performing life, though I wish I could. The playing of the Met Orchestra (unpaid for a year at the time of his death) could be a thing of wonder. He had some fantastic collaborations with singers, no doubt about it. And some performances, like his Otello with Domingo, really thrilled me. But I can’t think of any opera in which his recording would be my first choice, and there are many where I feel that once you’ve heard the real thing, his interpretations seem pretty pale – particularly in Wagner. Without the world’s greatest singers at his side, I can’t think of a single symphonic recording of his that is of the first rank. I completely understand why my friend would not be bullied into making Levine’s Mahler 3 into the official version of ‘his’ classical department. I once listed to an entire CD of Schumann 3 on the radio because it was so leaden, dull and awful that I had to find out who it was. No prize for guessing who was conducting.
It astonishes me that some on the internet have chosen to defend Levine on the basis that he was a victim of ‘cancel culture.’ And that it’s not fair to disregard a life of ‘great’ music making because of a single character flaw or error of judgement. But let’s be real for a moment. We call misconduct misconduct because it is, by definition, improper. Sexual misconduct is particularly insidious, and always a serious matter, but on the scale of seriousness, spending fifty-plus years serial raping children is about as bad as it gets. Really, what could be worse? Chopping up grandma with an axe? At least she’s had a life, and her suffering was brief. Levine’s victims had their childhoods and their futures stolen from them, and they’ve had to live with the trauma of his acts for their entire lives. They will take the memory of the true face of James Levine to their graves. The dark face that many in the American musical firmament knew existed, but chose to conceal for decades.
Here’s what cancel culture is.
Cancel culture is that the voice on my shoulder saying “don’t write about James Levine” is saying things like “because you’ll never work at the BSO or the Met.” Well, they haven’t exactly been booking me every week, so that’s fine. That voice is saying “don’t question his musical genius, because the leading critics in America have spent the last 30 years telling everyone he’s the greatest conductor since Bernstein, and critics have long memories.” That voice is saying “don’t call out the complicity of the rich and powerful, because in addition to sitting on boards of directors that facilitated his criminality and covered up his crimes, they sit on boards of trusts and foundations that you need to support your work.” That voice is saying “don’t speak ill of the dead, it’s wrong.” Well, if someone is ‘ill’ and you can’t speak of them when they’re alive, and you can’t speak of them when they’re dead, then I guess you can’t speak ill of them at all. That voice is talking to me and MANY others like me this week. The fear in our industry is real. People don’t want a ‘reputation’. They don’t want to burn bridges. But, like Granny under the axe, I’ve lived, I’ve got a job (for now), and so here I am. Having seen a few of my friends and colleagues with more to lose than me speak the truth on this topic today, I want to stand with them.