Dear Commons Community,
James Levine, the guiding maestro of the Metropolitan Opera for more than 40 years and one of the world’s most influential and admired conductors died on March 9th. He was 77. Here is an excerpt from a New York Times obituary written by music critic Anthony Tommasini.
“Mr. Levine was a widely beloved maestro who for decades helped define the Met, the nation’s largest performing arts organization, expanding its repertory and burnishing its world-class orchestra. And his work extended well beyond that company. For seven years, starting in 2004, he was the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, earning high praise during his initial seasons for revitalizing that esteemed ensemble, championing contemporary music and commissioning major works by living composers.
Mr. Levine also served as music director of the Munich Philharmonic for five years (1999-2004). He had long associations with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as music director of its Ravinia Festival for more than 20 years.
His final years as a maestro were dogged by health crises, including a cancerous growth on his kidney and surgery to repair a rotator cuff after he tripped on the stage at Symphony Hall in Boston in 2006. The problems forced Mr. Levine to miss weeks, even months, of performances. In March 2011, facing reality, he resigned the Boston post.
Despite the stark break with the Met Opera, it is at that institution where Mr. Levine’s musical legacy will be mainly defined. He had a 47-year association with the house and served in various positions of artistic leadership there. “No artist in the 137-year history of the Met had as profound an impact as James Levine,” Peter Gelb, the company’s general manager, said in a statement. “He raised the Met’s musical standards to new and greater heights during a tenure that spanned five decades.”
Most conductors of Mr. Levine’s generation maintained international careers, jetting from one appearance to another and not getting tied down for too long at any one post. Mr. Levine’s commitment to the Met was a throwback to the era of conductors like his mentor George Szell, who was the music director of the Cleveland Orchestra for 24 years.
From the beginning, his association with the Met seemed an ideal match of musician, art form and institution. A few weeks before turning 29, he made his debut in Puccini’s “Tosca” on June 5, 1971, a matinee for which he had had no stage rehearsals with the starry cast, headed by Grace Bumbry as Tosca and Franco Corelli as Cavaradossi. Reviewing the performance, Allen Hughes of The New York Times wrote that Mr. Levine “may be one of the Metropolitan’s best podium acquisitions in some time.”
Mr. Levine was named the company’s principal conductor, the first person to hold that post, for the 1973-74 season. The next year, with the departure of Rafael Kubelik, who had a brief and uneasy tenure as music director, Mr. Levine took over that title, beginning with the 1976-77 season, and settled in for what turned out to be 2,552 performances — far more than any other conductor in its history — as well as the creation of an extensive catalog of recordings and videos, including some landmark Met productions. He confidently led both early Mozart and thorny Schoenberg, and he brought works like Berg’s “Wozzeck” from the outskirts to the center of the company’s repertory.
At 5 feet 10 inches, with a round face, unkempt curly mane and portly build, Mr. Levine did not cut the figure of a charismatic maestro. His father used to nudge him to lose weight, cut his hair and get contact lenses, but Mr. Levine balked.
“I said that I would make myself so much the opposite of the great profile that I will have the satisfaction of knowing that I’m engaged because I’m a musician, and not because the ladies are swooning in the first balcony,” he said in a 1983 Time magazine cover article. Indeed, Mr. Levine expanded the public’s perception of what a conductor should be and, through dozens of “Live From the Met” broadcasts on public television, became one of the most recognized classical musicians of his time, even sharing the screen with Mickey Mouse in Disney’s “Fantasia 2000.”
He was neither a podium acrobat like Leonard Bernstein nor a grim-faced technician like Szell. His movements were nimble but never attention-grabbing. He encouraged orchestra players to watch his face, which beamed with pleasure when things were going right and signaled an alert when called for. “Give me some eyes” was his frequent request.”
My wife, Elaine and I have enjoyed many of his performances at the Met for decades. I attended a lecture of his once during which he said “good music does not need words… music alone was enough to communicate emotion and beauty between those with talent and those with the ability to appreciate it.”
We will miss him!