Arts Commentary: In Memoriam, James Levine (1943-2021)

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Do any of his accomplishments – including James Levine’s raising the level of an orchestra’s playing to new heights – really excuse sexual predation? I’d argue in the negative.

James Levine conducts Leon Fleisher and the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood, July, 2009. Photo: Hilary Scott.

Maybe the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) was on to something: at the 75th-anniversary gala concert celebrating the founding of Tanglewood, its summer home in the Berkshires, back in 2012, I was struck by the near-total absence of any acknowledgement of James Levine. Surely, I thought, the former BSO music director warranted more than a passing mention, if nothing else for some of the epic operatic presentations he had brought to Lenox over the previous couple of summers.

At the time, I chalked the omission up to lingering bitterness over his September 2011 departure from the orchestra, after several years of ill health and last-minute cancellations. The icy silence about the Levine that ensued over subsequent years made the period seem akin to a bad relationship one would rather forget than face memories of, head-on. By the time allegations that Levine had sexually abused a number of teenaged boys emerged in 2017, the orchestra’s non-embrace of the conductor seemed prescient.

But this interpretation paints a picture that’s too rosy by at least half: the BSO did hire Levine, after all, to succeed Seiji Ozawa in 2004. Granted, the orchestra’s “due diligence” beforehand didn’t uncover any skeletons. Yet perhaps that says more about the process than whether or not there was anything waiting to be found out. Indeed, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest Levine’s behavior was known to the Metropolitan Opera, where he was employed from 1973, and that he was never challenged about it. What’s more, his reputation preceded him to Boston: at least some in the orchestra treated reports of his non-musical activities seriously.

Why weren’t more alarm bells going off? Part of it surely had to do with the nature of the claims; part of it with the fact that they were rumors that nobody, to that point, had dared substantiate.

To be sure, careers shouldn’t be derailed by mere hearsay. Yet the commentary around Levine had been going on for some time – and had been fairly consistent, as the conductor Kenneth Woods reminds us it in a no-holds-barred essay. It even apparently led to a pair of investigations of the conductor by the Met, one in the ‘70s and another in the ‘90s. If those with decision-making responsibility at Symphony Hall had been listening more closely and bothered to look more carefully, one wonders if the orchestra might have avoided any association with this tainted figure.

Instead, the BSO cashed in on the lure of Levine’s celebrity. There were quick results: I recall some electrifying programs he led during, especially, the first couple years of his appointment. There was a Grammy-winning recording, too, as well as an acclaimed European tour.

But the allure seemed to fade, and fast: partly, no doubt, because of the conductor’s increasing cancellations; also, his obvious devotion to his New York gig (coupled with a decided lack of local press access) didn’t make Levine many new friends in Boston. Either way, whatever went on behind the scenes to get him to cut his ties with the BSO (and Woods’ report has a startling explanation for why and how things ended as they did) seems ultimately to have been to the ensemble’s benefit; their statement on his death is at once astonishingly terse and righteously indignant.

As such, it’s the exception to the rule.

Indeed, in tributes in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and on the Metropolitan Opera’s homepage, Levine’s musical triumphs rule. Maybe that’s to be expected: what one reads about, most of all, is his brilliant work as an orchestra builder; his musical and dramatic command of the standard operatic repertoire; his close friendships with some of the greatest singers of the age; his insightful teaching and coaching of young singers.

These are all real accomplishments and, surely, deserve acknowledgment. One can certainly admire Levine’s skill in raising the level of playing of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra; the stirring performances he drew from the likes of Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, Placido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti; his natural feel for Mozart and Verdi, and so forth.

But one also shouldn’t overdo it.

Levine was an indisputably gifted musician. In certain repertoire, he was wonderful: Mozart, Verdi, Stravinsky, Berg, and some Richard Strauss (I recall a terrific Elektra at the Met in the early 2000s) were his wheelhouse. Also, Levine’s enthusiasm for the works of various American Modernists (like Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter) was singular, at least among American conductors.

Yet, outside of Carter, Wuorinen, et al., his interest in contemporary music was narrow. His operatic interests, too, were firmly status quo. Interpretively, not much besides a sweeping Mahler 8, a gripping all-Schoenberg evening, and a visceral La damnation de Faust stand tall in my memory from his tenure in Boston. His recordings are, often enough, frustrating (the less said about Levine’s Wagner discography, the better). And does any of this – including raising the level of an orchestra’s playing to new heights – really excuse sexual predation?

I’d argue in the negative.

This makes some of the encomiums that have flowed since his death rather hard to swallow.

The Met, which employed Levine for forty-five years, offered a statement that praised his accomplishments before dutifully acknowledging his misdeeds. Granted, one doesn’t expect a recitation of the sordid tangle of lawsuits and countersuits that followed Levine’s 2018 firing from the company to turn up here. Still, their lack of claiming any sort of responsibility or remorse for shielding Levine for nearly half-a-century is jarring: Yes, he had his demons, they seem to be saying; when the pressure was too much for us to ignore, we belatedly investigated and fired him. It’s too bad for all involved, but nothing more can be done. Let’s move on.

Equally frustratingly is the composer John Harbison, whose own statement wallows in the supposed salvific qualities of art to exonerate the conductor: “Few of us escape the consequences of our worst mistakes,” he writes, “but people are more than the worst things they have ever done, and, even in today’s culture, Levine’s obituary can serve to return us to his performances.”

I agree with Harbison, at least partially: our worst behaviors shouldn’t necessarily define us. But sometimes they do. Sometimes the results of our worst actions exceed the benefits of our greatest strengths. What’s more, penalties should fit crimes. That is, after all, why one might face a sentence of life in prison for murder rather than, say, jaywalking. And this is precisely the sort of situation we have here with Levine.

The behavior Levine engaged in – preying on and abusing teenaged boys – ranks among the most damnable imaginable. That he wasn’t tried and convicted in a court of law is beside the point (by the time the accusations formally came to light, the statute of limitations, in most cases, had passed); that his settlement with the Met hinged, in part, on his not having a “morals clause” in his contract speaks volumes.

So, how do we move on from this depressing situation?

The fundamental issue at stake here is an old one: the tolerance of transgressive behavior – particularly morally transgressive behavior – by an individual labeled a “genius.” Levine fit that latter bill: one doesn’t rise as quickly as he did by accident. He was also a celebrity, with the expansive media presence that came with his role as the face of the United States’ largest performing arts institution. As such, he was a valuable commodity and the Met, for what we can imagine were reasons that included institutional pride, prestige, and money, was intent to protect him.

The whole situation, then, is ugly, amoral, and stains everything in its path: Levine, the Met, even, to a lesser extent, the BSO. The irony, of course, is that the art Levine served is often sold to us as a means of moral uplift and transformative power. So it can be – but, just as often, it’s a source of challenge, confrontation, and upheaval (which fans of Levine’s Otello and Wozzeck ought to understand well).

Accordingly, the attitude classical music institutions and their audiences need to take moving forwards is a proactive one.

In a forceful piece in The Boston Globe, A.Z. Madonna argues that the cult of genius that elevates and protects predators like Levine must go. She’s right. I’d add that the ridiculous notion that someone’s capacity for artistic accomplishment mitigates or even redeems bad behavior needs be likewise banished, along with the mindless deification of artists and repertoire from the past that remains far too commonplace.

Ultimately, we need performing arts institutions to be run (as Arts Fuse editor Bill Marx succinctly put it in an email a couple of days ago) humanely and ethically. That means enforcing standards of behavior and putting in place processes to safely and quickly address abuses of power at any and all levels. That means presenting an artistic vision that offers a diversity of voices and perspectives in terms of repertoire. That means an engagement in local communities and an adaptability in modes of performance that haven’t been hallmarks of the artform in the past.

It also means treating and compensating artists fairly – not locking out musicians and withholding paychecks for months at a time in an effort to wring concessions from them during a pandemic, as Peter Gelb is currently attempting to do at the Met.

Is this vision too utopian? If nothing else, it is a tall order. Arts institutions, generally, are big, cumbersome, conservative vehicles that typically change slowly, if at all.

Then again, they needn’t be inert; they’re led and supported by people who have the agency to affect transformations of just this type. So let’s stand up and insist on it. Then, perhaps, Levine can have a positive legacy after all: by motivating us to ensure that a monster of his rank is never coddled or afforded such exalted stature by a performing arts institution again.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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  1. Robert David Sullivan on March 22, 2021 at 10:45 am

    “the ridiculous notion that someone’s capacity for artistic accomplishment mitigates or even redeems bad behavior needs be likewise banished, along with the mindless deification of artists and repertoire from the past that remains far too commonplace.” It seems clear that Levine’s inexcusable behavior should be mentioned in any assessment of his career, but can any accomplishments still be discussed at all? Can any recordings that he is associated with still be enjoyed? I’m not sure that either action would be “excusing sexual predation,” as suggested in the blurb for this essay.

    • Jonathan Blumhofer on March 22, 2021 at 4:05 pm

      Hi Robert,

      Thanks for your comment.

      Certainly, I think Levine’s accomplishments and recordings can (and should) continue to be discussed, debated, played, heard, and enjoyed. Also, I would strenuously argue against any sort of ban or “cancellation” of them. His career happened and erasing it serves no good purpose: indeed, there were, musically, some wonderful moments.

      If nothing else, what we now know of Levine’s life and his work can serve as a reminder of the human capacities for doing good and evil that are wrapped up in each one of us. Like I say in the last part of this piece, I think there’s much more that should be done in light of that realization – but acknowledging it is, I suppose, the necessary first step.

  2. Martin Quitt on March 24, 2021 at 9:15 am

    As a long time BSO subscriber, I had wanted to hear Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. I was underwhelmed and greatly disappointed when Ozawa conducted it.Then Levine did it and I could not believe how great the piece was under his hand.That’s when I realized what an extraordinary conductor he was. How deeply disheartened I became after his predatory conduct was revealed. I could not listen to any of his recordings now.

  3. Nelson Rivella on March 31, 2021 at 5:32 pm

    There is nothing that can excuse sexual abuse. Nothing, period.
    But the question is, can we be sure beyond doube Levine was guilty? Don’t get me wrong, I have no personal interest here, nor do I actually care for the man artistically speaking (not even on the top 10 of “my” conductors), but isn’t it odd that nobody came forward for 40 years, and suddenly everyone was abused by James Levine?
    Again, not excusing the man. Just asking: can we assume, here, in writing and beyond doubt, as many did, that this guy was a serial child rapist?

  4. Remo Mazzetti Jr on April 4, 2021 at 9:49 am

    I’m a professional musician, and I lived in Manhattan from 1980 until 1996. In those years , I got to know several members of the Met including assistant conductors. Everyone knew what Levine was allegedly doing, and it wasn’t only in his past. In fact, I was told the the Met’s legal department was constantly making out of court settlements with the families of the young men involved in this sordid mess. The Met knew but ignored it because Levine was a big money maker. Personally, I was never impressed with most of his conducting.

  5. Raoul Joseph on April 4, 2021 at 1:31 pm

    There are other great artists in our history that may have done many other types of terribly awful things. We enjoy their works today even though we do not really know their life histories. Not because their transgressions are not documented for our eyes to see, that gives them an excuse. If we never knew about James Levine’s indiscretions, we would be celebrating his music without any reservations.The most beautiful music can come from the soul of anyone, good or bad. It is our true original self that speaks. However, no excuse for our bad behaviors.

  6. Thomas J Bellezza,MD on April 5, 2021 at 11:34 am

    Levine’s performances were up there with Solti and Giuliani. A great maestro and musician. He didn’t put Levine into the execution but seemed to play just what the composer had written… reading the score in its perfection. The moral charges are a separate issue.

    • Tom Phillips on June 26, 2021 at 1:06 am

      Certainly can’t hold a candle to this two conducting geniuses – as well as Karjan, Abbado, Muti and multitudes of others.

  7. Bill Eimers on April 10, 2021 at 11:58 am

    Excellent article, very well thought out and articulate.

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