Music

James Levine, conductor whose eminence was tarnished by abuse allegations, dies at 77

James Levine conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra on its opening night performance at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts, July 7, 2006. Michael Dwyer / AP, File

James Levine, a conductor whose spectacular musical versatility and vitality – and near-infallible knowledge of the works he interpreted – made him one of the world’s most acclaimed orchestra leaders but who lived to see his legacy blighted by accusations of sexual abuse, died March 9 at his home in Palm Springs, Calif. He was 77.

Len Horovitz, his personal physician, confirmed the death but did not disclose the immediate cause.

Levine had been in precarious health for more than a decade, canceling many of his performances after 2008 and undergoing spinal surgery. Even when conducting from a wheelchair, he remained a vigorous and indefatigable presence in American cultural life far beyond the rarefied opera world – widely considered the country’s most influential conductor since Leonard Bernstein.

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That all changed in December 2017, when the Metropolitan Opera suspended all association with Levine, after three men came forward with accusations that he had abused them sexually decades before, when they were in their teens.

The accusations of misconduct went back to 1968 and had been the subject of talk in music circles since the mid-1970s. Several media organizations had looked into the rumors over the years, but they had been impossible to confirm. However, amid a national reckoning over how powerful men in many fields – including the arts, politics and business – have abused younger men and women, Levine was the subject of renewed attention. In a written statement, he called the allegations “unfounded. As anyone who truly knows me will attest, I have not lived my life as an oppressor or an aggressor.”

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The Met fired Levine in March 2018 after an internal investigation, saying the company had “uncovered credible evidence that Levine engaged in sexually abusive and harassing conduct toward vulnerable artists in the early stages of their careers, over whom Levine had authority.”

Levine then sued the Met for $5.8 millon and the Met countersued. A settlement was reached in the summer of 2020 with both parties sworn to a confidentiality agreement. That September, the New York Times revealed that Levine had received $3.5 million to leave.

At the peak of his career, Levine was the artistic director not only of the most celebrated opera company in the Western Hemisphere, the Met, but also of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which ranks among the most prestigious institutions of its kind. In 1983, Time magazine put him on its cover, calling him “America’s Top Maestro,” and he appeared opposite Mickey Mouse in “Fantasia 2000,” Disney’s follow-up to the original film classic.

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With his bushy mess of graying hair and sweeping gestures, he was an immediately recognizable figure to anyone who had ever flipped on public television to see him conducting classical warhorses, as well as more avant-garde works. He exuded control and excitement about the music he led – no matter how many times he had watched Violetta waste away in “La Traviata” or the title heroine jump to her death in “Tosca.”

In a field that relies heavily on donors and stalwart subscribers, Levine drew hundreds of people to the Met for performance after performance, year after year, even as the longest-lasting singers had to retire their voices.

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He guided revered performers such as Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo, Jessye Norman, Cecilia Bartoli and Kiri Te Kanawa and earned a reputation as one of the most supportive conductors and accompanists in the field. “I could go where they pay four or five times what I get at the Met,” Domingo once said. “But the other places do not offer the opportunity to work with Jim.”

Levine spent most of his career – more than four decades and an unprecedented 2,555 appearances – at the Met. He was 27 when he made his company debut in 1971 and soon was named principal conductor. He was appointed music director in 1976 and was elevated to artistic director in 1986. He conducted there for the last time just as the abuse charges broke, on Dec. 2, 2017. Perhaps fittingly, he led Verdi’s Requiem Mass – a musical commemoration of the dead that had already been scheduled – instead of an opera.

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During his tenure, he was credited with vastly improving the orchestra. He transformed it from a passable “house band” into a gleaming ensemble that some critics and listeners deemed the best in New York – even better, at times, than the New York Philharmonic, the oldest surviving musical organization in the United States.

From the late 1970s through the early years of the 21st century, Levine spent more than seven months a year with the Met and led numerous first performances there. They included the company premieres of Mozart’s long-neglected “Idomeneo” and Alban Berg’s once-shocking modern masterpiece “Lulu,” as well as world premieres such as John Corigliano’s “The Ghosts of Versailles,” the first new work presented by the Met in almost a quarter-century, in 1991.

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Yet Levine was equally comfortable in the standard operatic repertory – in the more familiar works of Mozart, as well as Verdi, Wagner, Bizet, Puccini and Richard Strauss – and in the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler. Few, if any, conductors of his time were so reliably excellent in such a vast array of music.

After Levine’s first performance at the Met, conducting mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry in her 1971 debut as Puccini’s Tosca, veteran concertmaster and violinist Raymond Gniewek rushed backstage. He told Levine that it was the most exciting performance in the house since the venerated Herbert von Karajan had been a guest conductor a few years earlier.

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Levine said he approached the art of conducting as a teacher, coach and therapist, and he focused, in large part, on the needs of the singer.

“What a singer does is bound up with sensation,” he told Newsday in 1996. “That’s completely different from someone whose instrument is outside his body. When you coach a singer, you hear, and the singer feels. It’s almost impossible for a singer to make a dramatic change just because you ask him to do so. And if you do ask him to change something, very rarely will it be something that feels better at first.”

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His job, he said, was to coax that feeling along.

“I learned something from him that I couldn’t get from anyone else: the energy of the phrase,” Pavarotti told Newsday. “I’ve always been romantic, even melancholy. With him, I’m more vital.”

In 1996, Levine conducted the “Three Tenors” – Domingo, Pavarotti and José Carreras, all of whom had sung with him at the Met – in a multi-city tour. Earlier recitals, in Rome and Los Angeles, became the basis of one of the most commercially successful classical records and videos of all time.

Levine’s skills as an orchestra builder made him a natural candidate in 2001 to succeed Seiji Ozawa as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He became the symphony’s 14th music director and the first in the symphony’s 120-year history who wasn’t foreign-born.

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But there were signs that Levine was having health issues, which were described as sciatica, back problems and what the conductor referred to as “intermittent tremors.” He denied recurrent rumors of Parkinson’s disease.

In March 2006, Levine tripped and fell onstage during a standing ovation in Boston, after which he ceded the season’s remaining subscription concerts to his assistant conductor. Many extended leaves followed. Management grew restive, and when he canceled all of his Boston engagements in early 2011, leaving the orchestra rudderless once more, he was persuaded to resign.

He was also canceling more and more performances at the Met. In September 2011, after a fall while on vacation in Vermont, Levine withdrew for the rest of the season and the following year.

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In 2013, he returned to lead the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra from a motorized wheelchair on a specially designed platform.

His performance that September of Mozart’s “Così fan tutte” was a highly anticipated event, and Levine met the moment with a four-hour performance that dazzled reviewers.

Financial Times music critic Martin Bernheimer praised Levine’s ability to draw out “propulsion, proportion, warmth and uplift. The orchestra played for him with inspired virtuosity, and, under his prodding, a sextet of unequal singers came together as a sensitive ensemble.”

As Levine’s deteriorating health continued to challenge his performance responsibilities, the Met announced in April 2016 that Levine would be stepping down as music director and assuming the new role of music director emeritus.

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James Lawrence Levine was born in Cincinnati on June 23, 1943. His father, Lawrence, worked for a time conducting a dance band under the name Larry Lee. His mother, the former Helen Goldstein, was an actress who appeared on Broadway in the late 1930s as Helen Golden.

The younger Levine said his introduction to music began at 3, in part to overcome a stutter.

“When I was a little kid, I used to reach up high and try to play the piano when I passed by,” he told NPR. “And I also, at that time, could sing a tune coherently, but I had a very strong speech impediment. “And when my parents said to the doctor, ‘What do you think?’ he said, ‘Well, what’s he interested in?’ And when they told them about my banging on the piano, he suggested piano lessons.”

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The stutter soon vanished, and his interest in the piano deepened.

By the time he was 9, he was “staging” operas at home in a toy puppet playhouse, singing the entire score by himself. At 10, he made his debut with the Cincinnati Symphony as the soloist in a performance of Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

After completing piano and conducting studies in 1964 at the Juilliard School in New York, Levine became an assistant to the notoriously demanding George Szell, a Hungarian-born conductor who had turned the Cleveland Orchestra into a first-rate organization.

Szell, Levine told the Christian Science Monitor, “used to test me in his special way. I would stand in a room alone, facing him, and he’d ask me to conduct such and such a piece and sing along with it. ‘All right,’ he’d say, ‘that’s the first flute part, now let’s have the second clarinet. And what about the accelerando in this passage … ?’

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“It was really something, being an orchestra of one before this great fearsome man and going through one’s paces,” he added. “But I came there expecting that, and the result was that we got along well together, and he continued to give me all kinds of encouragement and recommendations.”

His training proved a boon to singers at the Met. But offstage, many opera writers and singers noted, Levine was hard to know and notorious for his unease with confrontation. It fell to Met General Manager Joe Volpe in 1994, for example, to fire the soprano Kathleen Battle for disruptive behavior.

“Jimmy wants everybody to love him so much that he’s unable to face certain realities,” soprano Roberta Peters once told the New York Times. “He cannot bear to give bad news, but eventually the bad news catches up with you, and it’s harder to take.”

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In addition to his work at the Met, Levine performed or recorded with the Chicago Symphony, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic and many other leading orchestras. From 1999 to 2004, he was chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic.

Survivors include a sister, according to Horovitz.

In 2002, Levine was among recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors. The award cited his career “making music and drama of unparalleled excellence and sublime beauty.” Such bravura language, he said, was the result of persistent refining during every rehearsal and performance over decades.

He was not a risk-taker, he once told an interviewer, but aimed to elicit from music “the beautiful, the noble and the powerful.”

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