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James Levine, disgraced former Met Opera maestro and BSO music director, is dead at 77

James Levine, who for decades led the Metropolitan Opera and Boston Symphony Orchestra before a spate of sexual abuse allegations ended his career, died on March 9 in Palm Springs, Calif.
James Levine, who for decades led the Metropolitan Opera and Boston Symphony Orchestra before a spate of sexual abuse allegations ended his career, died on March 9 in Palm Springs, Calif.Michele McDonald

The renowned conductor James Levine, who won acclaim at the Metropolitan Opera over the course of more than four decades before being fired in 2018 amid numerous allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct, died on March 9 in Palm Springs, Calif. He was 77. The cause was not immediately released.

Mr. Levine also directed the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 2004 to 2011, serving as the BSO’s first America-born music director in its history.

Before his firing by the Met in March 2018, Mr. Levine was regarded as one of the most versatile and widely influential American conductors of the 20th century. His sudden fall from power was set off by the publication of numerous reports alleging sexual abuse and misconduct, some of them dating back to his early years in Cleveland. Mr. Levine denied all charges against him and sued the Met for breach of contract and defamation. The Met then countersued Mr. Levine, alleging still more instances of previously undisclosed abusive behavior. The parties quietly settled in 2019.

Mr. Levine’s dismissal occasioned at least a temporary re-examination of classical music’s enduring “maestro myth,” its tendency to elevate the importance and power of conductors — often among the field’s most bankable stars — beyond the scope of all other musicians. Mr. Levine’s case also forced critics and audience-members alike to wrestle with the question of whether, or to what degree, a conductor’s artistic accomplishments could be separated from his personal behavior.

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In 2011, at the time Mr. Levine resigned from the BSO due to health problems, he was credited with revitalizing the orchestra artistically and expanding its repertoire both by leading world premieres of works by composers such as Elliott Carter, William Bolcom, Charles Wuorinen, and John Harbison, and by deepening the orchestra’s commitment to opera in concert. But there were also prolonged absences from the BSO podium due to back issues and a series of surgeries, with Mr. Levine missing an estimated 60 percent of concerts during the 2009-10 season.

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Mr. Levine, conducting at Symphony Hall in January 2010.
Mr. Levine, conducting at Symphony Hall in January 2010.The Boston Globe/Boston Globe

In 2016, when Mr. Levine concluded his four-decade run as music director of the Met, becoming music director emeritus, he was hailed for having built the institution into an international powerhouse. He did so by leading more performances than any other conductor, as well as more than a dozen company premieres, including modern masterpieces such as Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron” and Weill’s “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.” He also led the world premieres of John Corigliano’s opera “The Ghost of Versailles” and Harbison’s “The Great Gatsby,” among others.

Over the years he developed the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra into a world-class ensemble with its own independent artistic identity and a well-attended concert series at Carnegie Hall. He also forged ties with major European orchestras, including the Vienna and Berlin philharmonics, and with the festivals in Salzburg, Bayreuth, and Verbier. He served as chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic from 1999 to 2004.

As both an operatic and a symphonic conductor, Mr. Levine offered an enormous repertoire, encompassing music from Mozart and Donizetti to Verdi, and from Wagner to the latest contemporary works emerging from the high-modernist tradition. Singers often reported that when Mr. Levine was in the pit, they felt empowered to do their best work. For his Boston concerts, he greeted listeners each week with a letter in the program, often stating how much he adored every work being performed on that program.

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As an interpreter, he was known for his ability to achieve textural clarity in music of great complexity, and for his gift for wedding vivid coloristic detail with a sense of formal structure. While not unaware of the early music movement and the profound ways in which it reshaped modern performance styles of Baroque and classical music, his readings often implicitly pushed back against that movement’s more puritanical tendencies. In symphonic works he often preferred weightier textures and the freedom to emphasize what he saw as a piece’s expressive core. And he held a special affection for music that lay at the foundations of the modern tradition, especially the works of Wagner, Strauss, Schoenberg, and Berg, all of which he was capable of conducting with lyricism and luminosity.

Over the course of his lifetime, he made over 200 recordings and was probably the most recorded conductor in the history of opera.

From early on, Mr. Levine took a minimalist approach to podium gestures, generally avoiding ostentation and expressing a desire that orchestra musicians listen closely to each other, and then play right past him. “I want to make myself obsolete in the concert itself,” he told a New York Times interviewer in 1972, shortly before making his conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic. “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.”

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Mr. Levine leaves his sister, Janet, a therapist. He is preceded in death by his parents, Helen and Lawrence, as well as his brother, Tom, a painter who also worked closely with the conductor as a personal assistant.

James Levine was born in 1943 in Cincinnati. From his earliest age, music was his lodestar. By 3, he was tinkering on the piano and by 8, he began attending performances and rehearsals at the Cincinnati Zoo Opera, sometimes carrying a knitting needle as a personal baton. He was a piano prodigy and at 10, he made his debut as a soloist with the Cincinnati Symphony in Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 2. That same year he began commuting to New York on weekends to study piano, sometimes practicing in the ballroom of the Astor Hotel. “I sometimes say that music chose me,” he told a documentary filmmaker, “in the sense that I can’t remember my life without it.”

Performance was also in his family’s history. Mr. Levine’s maternal great-grandfather was a cantor, his mother had experience as an actor, and his father worked in the clothing business but was an amateur violinist and former bandleader. There was plenty of music in the Levine family home, but even so, little could have prepared his parents for his single-minded sense of focus.

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“One of the big fights of my life has been to make people understand that I don’t have time for a lot of stuff they have time for,” Mr. Levine once told an interviewer. “My parents could never understand why I couldn’t sit for two hours lingering over dinner. It was difficult for them to realize that they had interrupted me from a problem that was on my mind all the way through dinner. From my point of view, if I solved the problem today, I could go on to another one tomorrow.”

The violinist Walter Levin, of the LaSalle Quartet, became an early mentor. Mr. Levine’s piano teachers included Rudolf Serkin at Marlboro and Rosina Lhévinne at Juilliard, where he also studied conducting with Jean Morel. He led his first opera in 1961 at age 18 — it was Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” at the Aspen Festival of Music.

In 1964, Mr. Levine participated in the American Conductors Project at the Baltimore Symphony and was heard by the legendary music director George Szell, who invited him to the Cleveland Orchestra, where he quickly became an assistant conductor. It was also during this period that Mr. Levine founded a student ensemble, the University Circle Orchestra, at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

From among its ranks, Mr. Levine cultivated a circle of devotees over whom he wielded great influence. Members of the group would later accuse him of sexual abuse. A 2018 Globe investigation revealed a cult-like environment in which “the conductor’s alleged sexual behavior was part of a sweeping system to control this core group. As Levine yoked his musical gifts and position to a bid for power, he dictated what they read, how they dressed, what they ate, when they slept — even whom they loved.” Albin Ifsich, a young violinist at the time, told the Globe, “It was your job, basically, to service him under the guise of improving your music playing.”

In 1971, when he was 28, Mr. Levine made his Met conducting debut leading “Tosca.” Writing in The New York Times, critic Allen Hughes praised the performance as “vital, precise and splendidly paced” and suggested that Mr. Levine “may be one of the Metropolitan’s best podium acquisitions in some time.”

Mr. Levine went on to conduct over 2,500 performances at the Met, being named music director in 1976, and artistic director in 1986. His relationship with the BSO began in April 1972, when he made his debut as a guest conductor. In 2001, he was named as the BSO’s 14th music director, though he did not begin in Boston until the fall of 2004, a delay that allowed him to conclude his tenure at the Munich Philharmonic.

In Boston, he inherited an orchestra whose morale and performance standards had slumped during the final chapters of the 29-year tenure of Seiji Ozawa. Mr. Levine set about to raise the level of the playing and to embolden the ensemble’s programming. He did both in short order, and listeners took note.

“Perhaps sometime soon, music-lovers and critics will tire of remarking on the thrilling revitalization James Levine has sparked as the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra,” wrote critic Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times in October 2005. “But not yet. It’s still too momentous a story.”

From a programming standpoint, the first three seasons were remarkable for their number of 20th and 21st century works performed. Mr. Levine showed a strong penchant for composers enmeshed in the high-modernist tradition, and most of all for the dauntingly complex music of Carter. For Carter’s centenary year in 2008, Mr. Levine directed an unprecedented five-day, 47-work, all-Carter celebration at Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music, though recovery from emergency kidney surgery forced him to miss the actual concerts. Elsewhere at Tanglewood, he worked closely with the young musicians of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, whom he regularly led in concert performances of operatic works.

Mr. Levine, leading the BSO in a Mozart program at Tanglewood.
Mr. Levine, leading the BSO in a Mozart program at Tanglewood.Hilary Scott

Away from the podium, Mr. Levine was an intensely private man who spent decades keeping his personal life out of the press. Vague rumors of sexual misconduct had long circulated around him, but before 2017 and the emergence of the #MeToo movement in the wake of accusations against film producer Harvey Weinstein, newspapers that tried to investigate the allegations were unsuccessful. After the allegations finally surfaced, numerous musical institutions, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, severed their ties with Mr. Levine.

Many members of Levine’s Cleveland circle eventually followed the conductor to New York. Some of them won positions at the Met and elsewhere. Others drifted away from music. The cello soloist Lynn Harrell, part of the Cleveland circle, told the Globe in 2018, “I just wish it could have been what it seemed to mean at the time. It’s all faded now. It’s very much a tragedy.”


Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeremy.eichler@globe.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.