JAMES LEVINE, 1943-2021
Some believe an artist’s achievements should be celebrated despite grievous personal flaws. Others insist that we must discount greatness from a person soiled with moral failings. That seemingly eternal disparity could be seen in full flower in the reactions to the death of James Levine on March 9 in Palm Springs, California. In his long prime he was a great operatic conductor, the face of the Metropolitan Opera. But his image was clouded by widespread if long unverified rumours that he preyed sexually on young men, often those dependent on him for their careers. The breaking of that silence in 2017 ended his career. Loved—or at least deeply admired—versus despised summed up critical reactions and online commentary. There seemed to be no middle ground.
But of course there is. That Levine could be a monster, a sex addict, is indisputable. That he was loved as a profoundly gifted musician, the man who shaped the Met for 47 years, brought out the best in his singers and built its orchestra into one of the world’s great ensembles, attested to by innumerable broadcasts, CDs and DVDs, is also unassailable.
James Levine was America’s most successful home-grown conductor after Leonard Bernstein. They had vastly different personalities, but both were embraced with affectionate American informality: Bernstein was Lenny; Levine was Jimmy. Levine was born in Cincinnati on 23 June 1943. He showed promise as a pianist at an early age.
James Levine in 1970
Although he was offered a pre-college scholarship at the Juilliard School in New York, his parents wanted him to stay home and have a ‘normal’ childhood—but Jimmy was not normal. He commuted to Juilliard on alternate weekends to study with Rosina Lhevinne. He attended the Marlboro Festival in 1956 and worked there with Rudolf Serkin, and spent summers at the Aspen Music School, where he decided to focus on conducting. The cellist Lynn Harrell was there too, and recalled Jimmy as a loner, an outsider, though admired by his peers as their superior as a musician. After finishing ‘normal’ high school in Cincinnati, he enrolled in 1961 in Juilliard’s college division, where he studied conducting with Jean Morel. But in 1964 he left Juilliard without a degree to serve for six years as assistant to the fearsome George
Opera, May 2021