1943-2021 – US star conductor James Levine died at the age of 77

James Levine, the long-time music director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, is dead. The star conductor died on March 9 in Palm Springs, the New York Times reported on Wednesday. Levine, 77, shaped the Big Apple home for over four decades.

Levine has gotten into the talk lately in the wake of the MeToo movement. This must also be mentioned in an obituary, which takes place according to the rule “de mortuis nihil nisi bene”, not least because this circumstance meant the end of the conductor’s career, who continued to work despite suffering from tremor and probably Parkinson’s disease conducted from a wheelchair.

Levine was born on June 23, 1943 in Cincinnati, Ohio, into a music-loving Reformed Jewish family. He was considered a piano prodigy. He made his first public appearance as a pianist when he was ten. There is a connection to Austria on this level: Among other things, he was a piano student of the Austrian composer and pianist Jenö Takács.

James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra rehearse in September 2007  "La damnation de Faust" by Hector Berlioz in the Salle Pleyel in Paris.  This orchestra also distanced itself from the maestro after the abuse allegations.  - © APA / AFP / Miguel Medina
James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra rehearse “La damnation de Faust” by Hector Berlioz in the Salle Pleyel in Paris in September 2007. This orchestra also distanced itself from the maestro after the abuse allegations. – © APA / AFP / Miguel Medina

Opera and concert

As a conductor, he was a student of Fausto Cleva, but his defining figure was George Szell, the legendary chief conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, who also gave Levine’s beginnings as a conductor massive support by repeatedly inviting him to conduct the Cleveland Orchestra. After Szell’s death in 1970 Levine moved to the New York Met as the successor to Rudolf Bing. In 1999 he took over the Munich Philharmonic as Sergiu Celibidache’s successor.

While most international star conductors base their careers primarily on concerts, Levine was one of the few who split his work between opera and concert. In fact, Levine was a gifted opera conductor: his Verdi interpretations were of a unique vitality. Levine had learned to deal with rhythm from Szell: Precision as the basis of musical development, not as an end in itself. Levine’s accuracy filled Levine with a tension and breath that few conductors can match.

Levine also knew what to expect from a work under which circumstances: In Bayreuth, for example, he chose extremely slow, tense tempos for Richard Wagner’s “Parsifal”. But he was aware that this tempo dramaturgy could only work under Bayreuth circumstances, where the entire audience is ready to concentrate on the opera experience for a whole day. If he conducted Wagner’s works at other houses, his tempos were based on the sense of the Kapellmeister. Rather, one noticed the hand of the extraordinary conductor in the shaping of details, in the arcs of tension and the persistently built-up climaxes.

Commitment to new music

In the concert Levine was a skilled interpreter of the works of Gustav Mahler, but he never played his Second and Eighth Symphonies on phonograms. In the classical repertoire, Levine was a phenomenal interpreter of Mozart’s works. In addition, he was involved throughout his life in opera and concerts for new music. His notable accomplishments include bringing Benjamin Britten’s operas to the Met after Bing previously banned Britten. Levine also brought John Corigliano’s “The Ghosts of Versailles” to the acclaimed world premiere.

When at some point the excitement about possible sexual assault has subsided, one thing will remain about James Levine: he was one of the most important conductors of his time.

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