There are many James Levine stories, naturally. I’ll give you maybe my favorite. The details may be a little off, but the gist will be right.
When he was about seventeen, he was at the Aspen school and festival, rehearsing an orchestra. A veteran conductor from Vienna happened on the scene. After observing for a few minutes, he said to the person next to him, “Who’s that?” The person said, “That’s Jimmy Levine, from Cincinnati. He’s going to Juilliard next year.” The veteran conductor said, “Why?”
Okay, one more story. Again, the details may be slightly off, but the gist is right.
Levine is about fourteen, at the Marlboro school and festival. He is playing a Mozart piano concerto, with a senior, fairly well-known pianist doing the orchestra part, at the other piano. The kid starts leading the senior pianist—sort of conducting him. “More rubato here. Stricter there,” etc.
At first, the older pianist thinks, “Who does this snot-nosed kid think he is?” But then, he starts . . . following him. Deferring to him. Because the kid is not only the soloist in the concerto, he is right.
James Levine is one of the greatest conductors—greatest musicians—we have ever known. He died earlier this month at seventy-seven. To speak personally, I don’t think I have written about any other musician—any other performer—as much as I have James Levine. Night after night, I sat in the opera house, listening to him and reviewing him. There were plenty of nights in the concert hall, too.
He first conducted the Metropolitan Opera in 1971. He became music director of the company five years later. He stayed in that position for forty years. All his career, he conducted great orchestras (and made the Met’s one, actually). In addition to guesting—in Berlin, Vienna, and everywhere else—he held three directorships: at the Ravinia Festival (the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra); at the Munich Philharmonic; and at the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
His career came to an end in 2018 when he was accused—credibly—of a history of sexual predation and assault. I do not want to sweep these accusations under the rug. They colored practically everything, where Levine is concerned. A great fan of his—a music critic—told me that he could no longer listen to recordings by Levine. In this space, however, I am jotting a kind of musical eulogy.
One of the most impressive things about Levine was his versatility. He was without specialty. He excelled in opera and symphonic music alike. In Mozart and Wagner alike. In bel canto and the Second Viennese School alike. He brought the same basic values to all music, while adjusting, of course, for styles and sensibilities.
It is said that he never really got Puccini. Maybe. A friend tells me that he (Levine) watched Carlos Kleiber rehearse La bohème in awe. I must say, however, that I heard Levine in one act of Tosca at a gala. I never heard Puccini more stirring or right.
And in Il trittico (all three works)! Mamma mia.
If Levine had a gap, or a lacuna, as Bill Buckley would say, it was Bruckner. I’m not sure that Levine ever conducted Bruckner. Why did one of our greatest conductors avoid one of the greatest composers? No one does everything, I suppose.
He was an excellent pianist, Levine was. He made his concerto debut at ten. He studied with Rosina Lhévinne at the Juilliard School. In accompanying singers, he was a model. Could he have had a solo career, if he had wished? I believe so.
I always wanted to know whether he had anything in the drawer. If I had interviewed him, I would have asked him. Did he compose anything? That is what made Leonard Bernstein and André Previn complete, I believe—complete musicians. I once wrote of Levine, “He is as complete as a non-composer can be.”
He was a great talker, a great teacher. “A teaching conductor,” is what he called himself. He could not conduct—he could not rehearse or lead an orchestra—without teaching, as he went. One day, Marilyn Horne, the great mezzo-soprano, announced a master class, to be led by Levine. A master class for singers and their accompanists. “When Jimmy teaches,” she said, “we all get religion.”
When he was in his early twenties, Levine apprenticed under George Szell in Cleveland. I have always thought of Levine as Szell’s heir. I will cite a handful of qualities: discipline; freedom within discipline; fidelity to the composer; interpretive self-abnegation; mindfulness of the work as a whole, not merely its parts or moments; an uncanny ability to lead—to convince people under his baton, and people in the audience, “This is the way it goes,” pure and simple.
Writing about him day after day, I came up with a phrase: “just-rightness.” I particularly applied this to his Mozart. It was “just right” in tempo, phrasing, weight, spirit, and everything else. “The Mozart had the quality of just-rightness,” I would say, over and over.
Like other conductors worth their salt—and other worthy musicians in general—Levine had the ability to elevate music, or to bring out the best in it. To put it in the best possible light. For example, I never realized what The Tales of Hoffmann could be, until Levine conducted it.
I think of so many performances. So many highlights. A Falstaff. A Mozart C-minor Mass. A “Jupiter” Symphony. A Meistersinger. A Damnation of Faust (in the concert hall, rather than the opera house). A Verdi Requiem. A Fidelio.
The Verdi Requiem and the Fidelio—I think those may be the ones I prize most. I’m not sure. It’s all a great tie.
In perpetuity, there will be recordings and videos. They are fine souvenirs. But we who have lived in the time of Levine, and have been able to hear him, in the flesh, opera after opera, concert after concert, are incredibly lucky.