Professional Piano Debut at Ten
Named Principal Conductor of the Met
James Levine is a world-renowned conductor whose leadership at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera (Met) has ushered in a new era of artistic creativity and musical excellence. After taking over the music directorship of the Met orchestra in 1976 and the opera company’s artistic directorship in 1985, Levine transformed the ensemble into an entity that Gramophone magazine compared favorably to the celebrated Vienna Philharmonic of Austria. While modestly not taking credit for the opera’s accomplishments, Levine wrote in Opera News in 1990, “Those singers, conductors, directors who work in opera houses around the world concur about one thing—the work that is done at the Met is more consistently serious, thoughtful, comprehensive, imaginative, professional, stylish and exciting, with greater combined musical, dramatic and technical resources, than in any other international theater in the world.”
The oldest of three children, James Lawrence Levine was born into a musical family in Cincinnati, Ohio, on June 23, 1943. His father played the violin and, under the stage name Larry Lee, led a dance band during the 1930s; Levine’s mother was an actress on Broadway before she married. Levine displayed an interest in music when—as a toddler—he began picking out melodies at the piano. He began formal piano lessons at age four and worked unflaggingly at the ivories throughout his childhood. The boy often attended local opera and symphony performances with his parents and, with a score open in his lap, “conducted” the pieces with a knitting needle. At age nine he staged his own operas at home with the help of a puppet theater and record player.
Professional Piano Debut at Ten
Levine made his professional piano debut at the age of ten with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. His parents carefully managed his budding talent while he performed several times with the orchestra over the next few years. “I was not really anxious to be exposed early, and my parents were very anxious not to expose me,” Levine told New York Post correspondent Fern Marja Eckman. “They turned down all offers which smacked of exploitation. I’m eternally grateful.… They always encouraged me to do what I wanted and what gave me pleasure. They never pushed me. They didn’t give me a sense of having to succeed, but only of making myself happy.”
During the summer of 1956 Levine studied piano with revered master Rudolf Serkin at Vermont’s Marlboro Music Festival; the following year he spent the summer under the guidance of acclaimed pianist Rosina Lhevinne
For the Record…
Born James Lawrence Levine, June 23, 1943, in Cincinnati, OH; son of Lawrence (a dress manufacturer) and Helen (an actress; maiden name, Goldstein) Levine. Education: Studied with Rudolf Serkin at Marlboro Music Festival, 1956, Rosina Lhevinne at Aspen Music Festival, 1957, and Walter Levin; attended Juilliard School, 1961-63, studied with Jean Morel; studied with Wolfgang Vacano; apprenticed under George Szell.
Made professional piano debut with Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, 1953; assistant conductor, Cleveland Orchestra, Cleveland, OH, 1964-70; founder, manager, and conductor of student orchestra, Cleveland Institute of Music; teacher at Aspen Music Festival; music director of Ravinia Festival, 1973—, and Cincinnati May Festival, 1974-78; Metropolitan Opera, New York City, principal conductor, 1973-76, music director, 1976-84, artistic director, 1985—. Guest conductor for major U.S. and European orchestras.
Awards: Honorary doctorate from Cincinnati University.
Addresses: Office —Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, New York, NY 10023. Agent —Columbia Artist Management, 165 West 57th Street, New York, NY 10019.
at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado. To further his knowledge in harmony and theory, Levine also studied with Walter Levin, violinist of the La Salle Quartet. As a high school student, Levine dabbled in composition but did not see a future in it. The prospect of long and lonely tours as a piano soloist did not appeal to him either. Finally, the blossoming star realized that conducting should be his vocation: “I found that immersing myself in the task of communicating masterpieces was more rewarding for me than turning out bad compositions of my own,” he revealed in Opera News.
After high school graduation in 1961, Levine was accepted at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City. There he studied conducting with Jean Morel and piano with Lhevinne, finishing a five-year program in just two years. He spent his summers at Aspen, studying conducting with Wolfgang Vacano; it was there that he first conducted an opera, The Pearl Fishers. After placing as a finalist in the Ford Foundation American Conductors Project in 1964, Levine became an apprentice to George Szell, conductor of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. Szell taught Levine the nuts and bolts of conducting. Following his apprenticeship, Levine was offered the position of assistant conductor with the Cleveland orchestra, which he accepted without hesitation. During this time Levine also founded, managed, and conducted a student orchestra at the Cleveland Institute of Music and in the summers taught at the Aspen Music Festival.
Named Principal Conductor of the Met
Levine left the Cleveland Orchestra in 1970 to guest conduct nearly every important orchestra in the United States, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Cincinnati Orchestra, and the National Symphony, as well as several prominent European orchestras. He also became the director of the Ravinia Festival, the summer home of the Chicago Symphony, and for several years was music director of the May Festival in Cincinnati. Levine made his debut with New York City’s Metropolitan Opera in 1971 with a performance of Tosca by Giacomo Puccini. He was then offered a guest conducting contract for the 1972-73 season, during which he mounted Guiseppe Verdi’s Otello and Rigoletto and Gioacchino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. The next season, Levine was named principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera.
When Levine took the baton of the Met he found that the orchestra had suffered neglect from a long line of guest conductors. “Extraordinary orchestras were built by the conductor and the players working on every aspect of music-making day after day, year after year, until they understood each other musically in subtle and complex ways,” Levine explained in Opera News. “It requires patience and dedication. This is the work we began in 1973.” Thus Levine devoted much time to orchestra rehearsals, working resolutely on technique and details. “He cajoles, he compliments, he works in subtle ways. He’s never destructive,” Met violinist Toni Rapport stated in Newsweek. Although Levine’s unbridled enthusiasm and talkative nature occasionally grated on musicians, performers and critics alike admit that Levine’s efforts paid off. The orchestra is considered a superb, world-class ensemble. “I think today at the Met one can hear operas performed by an orchestra and chorus second to none and continuously improving,” Levine observed in the Opera News.
The image of the showy conductor does not appeal to Levine; during performances he prefers to stay in the background, a nearly impossible feat for a conductor. “I want to make myself obsolete in the concert itself,” he told Stephen Rubin, author of The New Met in Profile. “I want to be able to have the conception seem to emanate from the orchestra members who are, after all, the ones with the instruments, instead of from the crazy magician with a stick who is making all the gestures and telling the audience what they ought to be feeling and hearing. I want to get to the point where the audience would have the feeling they didn’t see me.”
In 1985 Levine was named the Metropolitan Opera’s artistic director, a post that broadened his responsibilities to include working with stage managers, set designers, and others in the many positions that are needed to stage an opera. Under Levine’s leadership the Met expanded its repertoire to include new productions of several twentieth-century operas, including Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd and Death in Venice, Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny, Alban Berg’s Lulu, Maurice Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortileges, George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung, and Bela Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. It also mounted the world premier of John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, a huge hit commissioned especially for the Met. New York City opera lovers have also seen revivals of standard works by Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, and Wagner, among others, and special treatment of other standards, including versions sung for the first time at the Met in their original languages, uncut renditions, and new English translations. Many of these productions were filmed for television and broadcast by PBS.
Renewed Recording at the Met
From the 1950s to the 1980s there had only been one recording project at the Metropolitan Opera, but interest was renewed in the late 1980s when performances were contracted by recording giants Deutsche Grammophon, Philips, and Sony. Levine finds the recording work exciting because it puts emphasis back on the vocals and music of opera, rather than on its visual elements. Levine hopes that Metropolitan Opera recordings will encourage listeners to attend live performances. Orchestra-only recordings are also planned. In addition to these projects, the maestro has conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in productions of non-operatic works, including a successful three-city concert tour in 1990.
Although the Metropolitan Opera already employs a roster of the best singers in the world, it has created a young artists development program to provide a training ground for promising young vocalists. Levine maintains that such a program is necessary because the style and technique that created the operatic form are no longer passed from generation to generation. With the development program, the Met’s management hopes to improve the chances for it and other opera theaters’ long-term survival.
To accept artistic directorship of the Met, Levine cut his annual conducting schedule from 90 to 60 performances. He is in residence at the Metropolitan Opera during 85 percent of its season but still regularly conducts the Chicago Symphony at the Ravinia Festival, the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival, and the Berlin Philharmonic at the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, Germany. The conductor feels that his time away from the Met enriches him artistically, allowing him to return renewed. A brilliant pianist, Levine also performs at chamber recitals with other members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and with the La Salle Quartet and mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig.
Pleased with the fruits of his efforts and those of countless others at the Metropolitan Opera who make opera come to life, Levine related in Opera News, “I’m enthusiastic… because I see us as an artistic collective gathering momentum in potential and esprit.… The positive attitude of the company, the feeling of ‘family,’ the ever increasing possibility to do serious work unencumbered by much of the nonsense that is so prevalent in society today, are things remarked upon over and over by visiting artists, and things we ourselves feel more and more strongly.” The conductor went on to predict, “If we can work on a certain amount of non-operatic repertoire with the orchestra and chorus to broaden their perspectives, if we can continue to develop and nurture some talented young singers… we could be in a position to offer very exciting performances even more consistently in the future.”
Bach: Cantata No. 202; Brandenberg Concerto Nos. 2-5, Ravinia Festival Ensemble, RCA Gold Seal.
Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra; Music for String Instruments, Percussion and Celesta, Chicago Symphony, Deutsche Grammophon (DG).
Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5, Chicago Symphony, Philips.
Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1, Chicago Symphony, RCA.
Dvorak: Symphony No. 7, Chicago Symphony, RCA.
Haydn: Creation, Berlin Philharmonic, DG.
Mahler: Symphony No. 5, Symphony No. 10, Adagio, Philadelphia Orchestra, RCA.
Mendelssohn: Symphonies: No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 56 (Scottish); No. 4 in A Major, Op. 90 (Italian), Berlin Philharmonic, DG.
Mozart: Cosi fan tutte, K. 588, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and State Opera, DG.
Mozart: The Magic Flute, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and State Opera, RCA.
Puccini: Tosca, Philharmonia (London), Angel.
Ravel: Daphnis et Chloe (complete ballet), Berlin Philharmonic, DG.
Saint-Saens: Cello Concerto No. 1; Lalo: Cello Concerto; Bruch: Kol Nidrei, Chicago Symphony, DG.
Schoenberg: Erwartung, Metropolitan Opera, Philips Classics.
Schubert: Symphony No. 9, Chicago Symphony, DG.
Schuman: Symphonies No. 2 and 3, Berlin Philharmonic, DG.
Sibelius: Violin Concerto; Dvorak: Violin Concerto, Berlin Philharmonic, DG.
Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and State Opera, DG.
Tchaikovsky: Evgeny Onegin, Dresden State Orchestra and Chorus, DG.
Verdi: Aida, Metropolitan Opera, Sony Classical.
Verdi: Otello, National Philharmonic Orchestra (London), RCA.
Wagner: Das Rheingold, Metropolitan Opera, DG.
Wagner: Die Walkurie, Metropolitan Opera, DG.
Annals of the Metropolitan Opera, edited by G. Fitzgerald and J. S. Uppman with an introduction by Levine, Metropolitan Opera Guild, 1990.
Chesterman, R., Conductors in Conversation, Robson, 1990.
Rubin, Stephen, The New Met in Profile, Macmillan, 1974.
Newsweek, September 30, 1991.
New York Post, June 4, 1971.
New York Times, January 17, 1982.
Opera News, December 9, 1972; September 1986; September 1990.
—Jeanne M. Lesinski
The American conductor and pianist James Levine (born 1943) was an outstanding musical director who developed and maintained the Metropolitan Opera as one of the world's finest companies.
James Levine was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, into a musical family. A prodigy, he made his debut as a pianist performing Mendelssohn's Second Piano Concerto with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra when he was ten years old. At the age of 13 he studied piano with Rudolf Serkin at the Marlboro Music Festival. The festival needed someone to conduct the offstage chorus for a production of Mozart's opera Cosí fan tutte. Levine took the position and enjoyed it so much that he began to think of a career as a conductor.
He also spent summers in his childhood at the Aspen Music School and Festival where he studied with Walter Levin, violinist with the La Salle Quartet. He continued to study privately at home in Cincinnati and, through special arrangements, was able to devote afternoons to music studies and still complete a normal high school education. In 1961 he enrolled at Juilliard and was found to be so advanced that he was placed directly in the graduate program, in which he studied conducting with Jean Morel and piano with Rosina Lhévinne. During this time, he also studied withRudolf Serkin, Alfred Wallenstein, Max Rudolf, and Fausto Cleva.
In 1962 he conducted Bizet's opera The Pearl Fishers at Aspen. When Levine was 20, George Szell, one of the world's foremost conductors, asked him to be assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, the youngest musician to hold such a post. From 1964 to 1970, he attended George Szell's rehearsals, concerts, and recording sessions and himself rehearsed and conducted under Szell's watchful eye. During this time he was also music director of the University Circle Orchestra and chairman of the Cleveland Institute's Department of Orchestral Training. He continued to appear at the Aspen Music School and Festival, now as a teacher as well as a conductor. He managed to perform the same activities for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's summer festival, Meadow Brook. In addition to all these commitments he also worked at Oakland University.
In 1971 he conducted both Luisa Miller and Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera and was named its principal conductor—a post created for him; he was named music director of the Met in 1976; and in 1986 he was chosen the company's first artistic director. He also began his prolific recording career at this time, conducting operas by Verdi and Bellini.
Levine put his stamp upon the Metropolitan Opera. He managed to spend eight months a year there despite his hectic schedule, expanding its repertoire and developing its production values. He made numerous additions from the canon of modern opera, including Lulu, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Billy Budd, and Porgy and Bess.
Levine revived Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, and Der fliegende Holländer, and he began a Mozart cycle which added Idomeneo and La Clemenza di Tito to the Met's Mozart repertoire. He also presented uncut versions of Parsifal, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, La Forza del Destino, and Don Carlos, a reflection of his strongly held view that the composer's work is to be presented as he—not some subsequent, lesser musical light—envisioned it.
Although prolific in his studio recordings, Levine believed in live recordings and perceived the value of recordings to be their documentation of the style and the performances of an era. To this end, he moved beyond the traditional Saturday radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera to create the "Live from the Met" television opera series in 1977. These programs, presenting complete, subtitled versions of actual performances and using increasingly sophisticated camera techniques, brought live operas into the homes of the largest potential audience in history. This series included La Bohème, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Tosca, Faust, and a variety of other works. He also initiated the annual revue of orchastral programs with soloists. In 1983 James Levine was the subject of a Time magazine cover story which claimed him to be America's leading maestro. The next year, he was named Musician of the Year by Musical America and was the first recipient of New York City's annual Cultural Award.
Levine conducted on tours with the Met orchestra throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, and Japan. In addition, he was a regular guest with the Philharmonic Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin, Munich and Vienna Philharmonics, and the Bayreuth Festival in Germany. He also had the honor of conducting in Frankfurt on that city's 1200th anniversary in 1990.
In 1996 James Levine celebrated 25 years with the Metropolitan Opera with an eight-hour performance on April 27th, broadcast over television. Excerpts from 43 operas, along with many of the most gifted performers such as Placido Domingo, Birget Nielsson, and Kiri Te Kanawa, were featured. Bernard Holland of the New York Times wrote, "What everyone seemed to share was a deep respect for Mr. Levine's ability. In opera conducting, no one accompanies better than him. … It is hard to recognize legends while they are still among us, but rest assured Mr. Levin will be one." In a documentary film about his career, James Levine: A Life in Music, the conductor stated, "I sometimes say that music chose me, the more I felt I just wanted to be immersed in it and the more it answered all my needs."
James Levine is discussed in both The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (London, 1980) and Baker's Biographical Dictionary, 6th edition (1978). The conductor's style is dealt with in "James Levine on Verdi and Mozart" by B. Jacobson (adapted from the book Conductors on Conducting), in HiFi/Mus Am (December 1978). See also "Men of the Met: Working Visionary—James Levine, music director of the Metropolitan Opera, explores how he is putting his dreams for the company into action" by R. Jacobson, Opera News (September 1980). For a discography and consideration of Levine's conducting, see "The State of U.S. Conducting" by R. Dettmer, Fanfare (1982). Levine is the subject of an in-depth examination in Maestro: Encounters with Conductors of Today by Helena Matheopoulous (1982). Levine's 25th anniversary celebration is reviewed in the April 29th edition of the New York Times, "Eight Hours Honoring 25 Years in Artistry," by Bernard Holland. A full-length television movie, James Levine: A Life In Music profiled the conductor. Directed by Peter Weinberg, it was shown throughout Europe and the United States. Web sites where information about Levine can be found are a history of Levine at the Metropolitan Opera athttp://www.opera.it/freeweb/domingo/levine/chron.htm and details about A Life In Music at http://ww.unitel.classicalmusic.com/ucatalogue/portrait/173_5htm. □
Born: Cincinnati, Ohio, 23 June 1943
It was said by some in the 1990s that the best orchestra in America was the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. If it was, credit goes to James Levine, who became the orchestra's principal conductor in 1973 and the opera company's music director in 1976. In 1986 the company showed its approval of Levine by making him its first-ever artistic director. He is credited with developing the Met orchestra and chorus to its highest level ever and securing the Met's status as America's top opera company.
Levine's accomplishments at the Met are in part due to an expansive conducting style and solid musicianship. But they are also the result of his level of commitment to working with the company—he spends more than seven months of every season at the Met, which is unusual in an era of jet-setting maestros. By 2000 he had conducted almost 2,000 performances of seventy operas at the Met. He also grants players in the orchestra an unusually high level of autonomy in managing their own affairs, and his collaborative style has attracted some of the best musicians in America.
One sign of the Met orchestra's high standing is the extent of its performances outside its home opera house. Levine and the orchestra began performing concerts away from the Met in 1991 and have toured Japan, Europe, and the United States, including annual performances at Carnegie Hall.
Though Levine's biggest accomplishments have been as a conductor, his musical talent was first obvious as a pianist. He was a child prodigy and made his pianistic debut at the age of ten as a soloist with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He studied piano and conducting at the Juilliard School in New York and in 1963 was named assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell—at twenty-one, the youngest assistant in the orchestra's history. He stayed in Cleveland for five years, but his real career break came in 1971, when he first guest-conducted at the Met.
Levine established the Metropolitan Opera Presents series of live public television broadcasts and founded the Young Artist Development Program. He has also broadened the company's repertoire by including premieres of operas by Mozart, Verdi, Schoenberg, Rossini, Weill, Berg, Stravinsky, Gershwin, and new commissions from John Corigliano, John Harbison, and Philip Glass.
In addition to his Met duties, Levine is a busy guest conductor and has conducted nearly every major orchestra in the world. He has had close relationships with the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics, the Dresden Staatskapelle, and London's Philharmonic Orchestra; he has also been a regular guest artist at the festivals in Salzburg and Bayreuth. For twenty-five years (1971–1995) he was music director of the Chicago Symphony's summer Ravinia Festival. In 1999 he became chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic and was appointed music director of the Boston Symphony beginning in 2004.
Since 1996 Levine has often been conductor of the lucrative Three Tenors stadium shows, and in 1999 he conducted the soundtrack for Disney's Fantasia 2000. He is also a much-admired piano accompanist and chamber musician, and he performs frequently in recital with some of the world's best vocalists and instrumental soloists. He has made more than 200 recordings with some of the best soloists and orchestras in the world.
As a conductor, artistic administrator, pianist, and music personality, Levine has established himself as one of the most important figures on the American classical music scene. Among his many awards and honors are the National Medal of Arts (1997), Austria's Gold Cross of Honor, and a Kennedy Center Honor (2002).
James Levine's 25th Anniversary Gala (Deutsche Grammophon, 1996); Mahler Symphony No. 7 with the Chicago Symphony (RCA, 1980); Maestro at the Met (Deutsche Grammophon, 1995).
R. Marsh, Dialogues and Discoveries: James Levine: His Life and His Music (New York, 1998).
LEVINE, JAMES (1943– ), U.S. conductor and pianist. Levine was born in Cincinnati and made his debut as a pianist at the age of ten with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He took piano lessons with Walter Levin and Rudolf *Serkin. In 1961 he entered the Juilliard School of Music to study conducting with Jean Morel and the piano with Lhévinne. In 1964, he joined the music staff of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra under George *Szell, whose assistant conductor he became two years later. Although he conducted many symphony concerts (especially with the Cleveland Meadow Brook Orchestra, which he founded in 1967) he achieved his most notable successes as an operatic conductor with the Welsh National Opera (Aida, 1970) and with the San Francisco Opera (Madame Butterfly, 1971). After his highly successful début at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in 1971 in Tosca, he was appointed principal conductor of the Metropolitan (1973–74), its music director (1975), and its artistic director (1986). There he led 2,000 performances of 75 different operas and conducted the house premieres of Mozart's Idomeneo; Lulu, Erwartung, Mahagonny, Moses und Aron, and Oedipus Rex; Corigliano's The Ghost of Versailles (1991); *Glass' The Voyage (1992); and John Harbison's The Great Gatsby (1999). Levine was the director of the Cincinnati May Festival (1973–78) and the Ravinia Festival (1973–93). He conducted at Bayreuth Göz Friedrich's centennial production of Parsifal (1982–85, 1988), Wolfgang Wagner's Parsifal (1989–93), and the Kirchner/Rosalie Ring (1994–97). Levine recorded with many orchestras such as the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (including the complete cycle of Mozart symphonies), Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. With the latter he recorded major symphonic works. As an accomplished pianist, his recorded chamber music includes Schubert's "Trout" Quintet and Schumann's Piano Quintet. His many honors include the Lotus Award ("for inspiration to young musicians"), the Anton Seidl Award from the Wagner Society of New York, and the National Medal of Arts endowed to him by President Clinton at the White House.
Grove online; P.J. Smith, A Year at the Met (1983); J. Levine with R.C. Marsh, Dialogues and Discoveries (1997).
[Max Loppert /
Israela Stein (2nd ed.)]