Cincinnatians remember Maestro James Levine and his musical career
At the peak of his career, bandleader James Levine, who died March 9, seemed to be everywhere on the global concert stage. The Cincinnati native has served as music director for the Cincinnati May Festival, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Ravinia Festival.
But nothing sealed his reputation as a superstar quite like his 40-year relationship with the Metropolitan Opera, where he conducted thousands of performances as musical director.
“To me, he was one of the most important figures of our time,” said James Conlon, who, on Levine’s recommendation, took over from the older conductor as Music Director of the May Festival in 1979. Conlon, who now works mostly in Europe, said he learned more from Levine than any other conductor in his career. Conlon said he saw Levine transform the Met, already a grand opera house, into “a bigger opera house”.
Despite his epic musical accomplishments, Levine’s tenure at the Met ended in a sexual abuse and harassment scandal in 2017.
Long before Levine became a worldwide artistic prominence, he was “little Jimmy Levine”, a gifted piano student from North Avondale. He was not the first musician in the family. Before joining the family sewing business – Louis Levine & Sons – James’ father Lawrence ran dance groups under the less Jewish name “Larry Lee”.
Cincinnati photographer and filmmaker Ann Segal recalls those early years. His family lived on Rose Hill Avenue, just behind the Levines’ Beechwood Avenue house.
“It was all so impressive to me,” recalls Segal, who spent most of his time performing with Levine’s sister, Janet. “I had never known people who were in show business. They had a glamorous picture of (opera singer) Roberta Peters on the wall. And his father – well, I had never met anyone like his father. He sang, you know. To me, he was kind of a Jackie Gleason character.”
Andy Balterman, a retired arts librarian, lived three doors down from the Levines and played regularly with James’ younger brother Tom, who died last April.
“We were always playing cops and robbers with our hands as guns. But when it was hot and the windows were open, I remember hearing Jimmy constantly practicing on the piano and feeling sorry for him because he couldn’t go out and have fun.
Most biographies of Levine note that he made his professional debut at the age of 10, performing as part of a Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Youth Concert on January 12, 1954. But his career as a performer actually started several years earlier.
Each year his first piano teacher, Gertrude Englander, presented a recital of his best pupils, often at the Taft Museum of Art in the city centre. It was there, on November 6, 1949, that 6-year-old Levine appeared as part of a group recital with seven other students.
It was during this time that the extent of his talent became apparent, and his reputation quickly rose from “gifted” to “prodigy”.
Singer Carolann Mary Slouffman, who like Levine is said to attend Walnut Hills High School, tells a story of young Levine that has been told and repeated with many variations over the years.
“According to the story, Jimmy and his mother were attending a Zoo Opera performance. Italo Tajo (a fame bass) was singing when he spotted little Jimmy “directing” the production with one of his mother’s knitting needles.
Maybe it’s just an apocryphal tale. But from his earliest years, Levine approached music with a zeal that bordered on obsession.
Former CSO assistant conductor Carmon DeLeone recalls an encounter he had with Levine around 1965, the year after 21-year-old Levine became the legendary conductor’s apprentice. musical director of the Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell.
“I don’t know where I got the guts to do that,” said DeLeone, who served as the Cincinnati Ballet’s music director for more than 50 years. “Jimmy had to be in town to visit his family. So I got in touch with him and asked if I could take him out to lunch to talk about conducting. Remember, I didn’t even know him at the time. But he was only a year older than me.”
They went to the former Lenhardt’s on West McMillan Street, a Clifton Heights restaurant best known for its classic schnitzel dishes.
“I knew he was an opera fan, so I mentioned that one of my favorite works was Alban Berg’s unusual opera ‘Wozzeck,'” DeLeone said. “As soon as I mentioned it, he started humming and singing the first bars of serval. I had the feeling that he could have continued the whole piece.
DeLeone was stunned by the depth of Levine’s knowledge of the job. There was more, too, as Levine talked about the context and historical intricacies of several other works they were discussing.
“When it was over, I was even more impressed with him than I had been,” DeLeone said. “It made me realize how much knowledge he had absorbed about all aspects of music.”
But this ultra-focused approach to music had long been part of Levine’s life. As a student at Walnut Hills, his school day ended at 1 p.m. Then he would return home for at least two hours of piano practice and tutoring in other musical theory, chamber music, harmony, and repertoire. In addition, there were private lessons in German and French.
“My time is spent in a peculiar way, according to most people, I suppose,” Levine told Cincinnati Post & Times-Star reporter Eleanor Bell in 1960. “But that’s how I like it. “
Before long, he was flying to New York every weekend to study with Rosina Lhevinne, the Juilliard pianist known for her work with prodigies such as Van Cliburn and John Browning.
It was then, after becoming known to prominent musical influencers in New York, that his career took off that would continue for much of the next 60 years. He began experiencing a series of health issues in 2006, many of which were later attributed to Parkinson’s disease.
In 2017, following the MeToo movement, a series of news stories accused Levine of a decades-long history of sexual harassment and misconduct with younger, vulnerable men. Combined with his growing health problems, the charges effectively ended his career.
Earl Rivers, who retired as choral director at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music in 2020, had his first musical collaboration with Levine in 1974. It was Levine’s first season as director May Festival musical. Rivers was the acting director of the May Festival Chorus.
Today, Rivers is aware of these numerous charges against Levine. But her memory of the man is mostly shaped by her personal experiences with him.
“I knew him, of course,” Rivers said. “But I remember being so impressed with how well prepared he was. It was more than that, however. I will never forget his musicianship and impeccable musical taste. He just charmed the choir and the players It wasn’t an act. They felt his sincerity and his genius. People loved to sing and perform for him. He had such a love for music – all music. It was an irresistible quality. You knew that. you were in the presence of greatness.
Writer Chris Mayhew contributed to this report.