In the maestro’s thrall
They were known as ‘Levinites’ — the young musical acolytes who bent to the will of James Levine in all things, back when the conductor was the brightest emerging star in conducting. From the outside, it seemed a charmed circle; the reality inside was otherwise: dark, sexually charged, and often demeaning.
As Albin Ifsich, a young violin student, stood in the doorway, the conductor wanted to know one thing: If he could save just one person, who would it be — the conductor or the violinist’s own mother?
“If you pick your mother,” Ifsich recalled the conductor telling him, “you will walk out this door and never see me again. If you pick me, you will close the door, step into this house, and be with me forever.”
It was the fall of 1968, and for Ifsich, a 20-year-old student at the Cleveland Institute of Music, the answer was clear: He must choose James Levine, the magnetic conductor who’d developed a provocative cult-like following among a small group of students at the institute and who, 50 years later, would be accused of sexual assault while leading the school’s University Circle Orchestra.
Rumors of Levine’s alleged sexual improprieties have hounded the conductor for decades, even as he became one of the country’s most revered artists during his 40-year reign as music director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. His epochal career has included a lengthy association with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where he led the orchestra for years as music director of the Ravinia Festival; a chief conductorship with the Munich Philharmonic; and a seven-year stint with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where he served as music director until 2011.
But interviews with nearly two dozen former students and musicians from Levine’s Cleveland days, including six from the maestro’s inner circle, indicate 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.
Former members, many of whom went on to play in some of the country’s top orchestras, say the maestro encouraged them to break off relationships with people outside the group. He discouraged them from reading newspapers, watching television, or going to the movies with outsiders. Levine’s dominance was nearly absolute, they say, as he drew his disciples close for nightly meetings that included everything from chamber music and studying opera scenes, to loyalty tests and anonymous group sex he said would enhance their musicianship.
“I thought it was sex for my improvement, sex to make things better,” said Ifsich, who went on to become a violinist in the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. “Obviously that’s not what it was, but we were led to believe that.”
Levine, 74, did not respond to repeated interview requests from the Globe. He has previously denied allegations that he sexually abused his former students.
“As understandably troubling as the accusations noted in recent press accounts are, they are unfounded,” Levine said in an earlier statement. “As anyone who truly knows me will attest, I have not lived my life as an oppressor or an aggressor.”
The Metropolitan Opera, where Levine became music director emeritus in 2016, suspended the conductor last December pending an investigation.
“Until that process is complete, the Met will be making no further statement,” a Met spokesman said via e-mail.
Meanwhile, leaders at the BSO called the allegations “deeply disturbing.”
“The Boston Symphony Orchestra has not worked with James Levine since he stepped down as music director in 2011,” the orchestra said in a written statement. “[H]e will never be employed or contracted by the BSO at any time in the future.”
The recent revelations have unleashed searing memories for some of Levine’s Cleveland followers, many of whom are now in their 70s and have spent a lifetime guarding their dark secret with the maestro from colleagues, spouses, children, and grandchildren.
“This was a cult,” said one former member who declined to be identified because he has never told his family about the experience.
“I was so young, I didn’t understand what the hell was going on,” said the former member, who is no longer a professional musician. “The guy was such a brilliant musician [I figured] maybe he knows what he’s talking about, so for a couple of years I was pretty much brainwashed.”
When Levine first arrived at the Cleveland Orchestra to apprentice under conductor George Szell, there was little question the 21-year-old wunderkind was among the rarest of talents. Growing up in Cincinnati, he had made his concert debut as a pianist with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at age 10. Levine spent his teenage years traveling frequently to New York and the Aspen Music Festival and School, where he studied with acclaimed piano teacher Rosina Lhévinne.
He sailed through Juilliard, heading back to Ohio in 1964 to work as an apprentice and later assistant conductor to Szell, the imperious Hungarian who, during his quarter-century reign, transformed the Cleveland Orchestra into one of the world’s finest.
“You’re a very good conductor,” Szell reportedly told Levine after hearing him perform. “Maybe we can make you a great one.”
But while the old-school maestro used his imposing presence to elicit lush yet precise performances from the orchestra, Levine avoided such formalities, encouraging musicians to call him “Jimmy.”
With his husky frame, large glasses, and corona of kinky brown hair, Levine found a second musical home at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where in 1966 he founded a student ensemble known as the University Circle Orchestra.
Although Levine was only a few years older than many of his students, he was light-years ahead in terms of professional development.
He used his Cleveland Orchestra connections to pad the student ensemble with professional players, encouraging students to pore over scores with talmudic zeal.
“He was very charismatic,” said Carl Della Peruti, who played trombone in the student ensemble. “Everyone recognized that he was brilliant and a wonderful conductor.”
But Levine was also a divisive figure at the music school, attracting a small group of ardent followers — a circle of disciples so slavishly devoted to the maestro they became known as the “Levinites” — while alienating other students.
This group of 20 or so devotees hung on the maestro’s every word. They mimicked his wardrobe of velour shirts and desert boots. They shunned other orchestra members, speaking only to one another as they trotted around campus, a composer’s score tucked dutifully under one arm.
“They never socialized with anyone,” said Charles Ward, who played horn in the student ensemble. “You just knew that they were in some special group with Levine.”
Ann Steck, a violinist who played in the orchestra, said the conductor had clear favorites, ignoring some players while singling out others for effusive praise and private instruction.
Steck, who went on to play with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, said she believed Levine’s doting attention was the first stage in a grooming process he used to lure potential converts.
“The kid learned to feed off of what Jimmy had to offer,” she said. “The kid would become dependent.”
In what Steck called the next “stage,” Levine would then turn the tables, belittling a once-favored pupil with cutting comments and sarcastic jabs.
“So they’re in a tough spot, because this god that thought they were wonderful didn’t think so any more,” said Steck. “At that point, they’d show up at rehearsal white as a sheet with blank faces. They’d just sort of stumble around for a while. Those were the kids that ended up as part of his group.”
In a statement, the Cleveland Institute of Music said it “has no record or knowledge of any complaints about Levine during his tenure here.”
Not everyone Levine approached, however, fell prey to his machinations.
Alan Ellsworth, who played violin in the student orchestra under Levine, said he was thrilled when the conductor first suggested they meet independently to work on a Beethoven sonata.
But Ellsworth, who was 18 at the time, said when he arrived at the practice room Levine seemed less interested in playing music than he did in asking probing questions about the young violinist’s sexuality.
Levine started, Ellsworth said, with a bizarre sequence of queries, ranging from mathematics to favorite authors.
“One of the first ones was, ‘Do you use utensils when you eat?’,” recalled Ellsworth, who went on to play with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. He then asked Ellsworth about his masturbation habits.
Ellsworth, who said Levine never touched him physically, said the conversation lasted for three hours.
“I knew enough at that point,” said Ellsworth, who then kept his distance from the conductor. “I was kind of a punk back then, but I was thinking very clearly about this.”
Others fled after glimpsing Levine’s inner circle up close.
In the summer of 1968, Levine and members of the student ensemble traveled to Michigan to attend the Meadow Brook School of Music, where Levine served as the orchestra’s music director.
Among the students that summer was a young violinist name John Naskiewicz, a Levine favorite who’d been buzzing around the maestro but had yet to become a devotee.
Steck, who briefly dated Naskiewicz, said the violinist came to her deeply upset after going to Levine’s quarters one night with a handful of Levine’s followers.
Naskiewicz, who Steck said died in the mid-1980s from complications related to diabetes, told her he’d been disturbed by something of a “sexual nature,” which he’d reported to his private music teacher, Jerome Rosen.
“John was quite shaken by it,” recalled Steck. “He began to distance himself from the group.”
Rosen, who had worked as an apprentice conductor at the Cleveland Orchestra, later joining the Boston symphony, confirmed that Naskiewicz confided to him that summer.
“He told me that some sort of mind [expletive] was going on,” recalled Rosen, who retired from the BSO in 1998. “There was an attempt to get him to do something to someone else that he didn’t want to do. It involved a homosexual act.”
Rosen said he did not report the incident to anyone at the festival that summer, in part because Naskiewicz refused to perform the sex act.
“I had a great deal of discomfort,” said Rosen. “I was caught in between.”
For those who did join the group, Levine and his style of music making became foundational to their identities.
Former members say that while they continued to attend classes, the conductor demanded total allegiance, gathering them each night for meetings he’d hold after finishing up his duties with the Cleveland Orchestra.
The call would come around 11 p.m., and the group, many of whom lived together in a series of off-campus homes, would head over to a house on Euclid Avenue, where Levine presided from the piano.
Those evenings, which stretched well into the early hours of the morning, often featured music, with Levine leading the group through opera scenes. His assistant prepared meals as the group sang or played chamber music together.
Occasionally Levine would test his students — asking members to name a piece of music after hearing only the opening chord, or posing questions to gauge their musical commitment.
One question several members described involved a burning house and a choice of whether to save the last surviving copy of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or a baby.
There was only one right answer.
Other exams were more challenging.
“We’d have a mutual masturbation session where we’d have to blindfold ourselves and pair off in twos,” said Ifsich, who first described the alleged encounters to The New York Times. “The test for us would be: Can you tell if it’s a girl or a guy?”
Cellist Lynn Harrell, who went on to become one of the most acclaimed soloists of the 20th century, said one of the exercises was meant to help them tame their libidos.
“There were just a couple of girls in this group, and people would be blindfolded,” said Harrell, who said he did not recall mutual masturbation sessions. “She would come to people: The idea was to prevent yourself from getting an erection.”
Former members said Levine justified the blending of sex with music as part of a “holistic” theory: On the one hand, they must learn self-control to better endure the rigors of performance. On the other, they must overcome their sexual hang-ups to become more expressive players.
“This was disinhibiting in some way,” said the former member who is no longer a professional musician. “Basically, the theory was if you were less inhibited sexually, you’d be a better musician.”
Former members said Levine orchestrated all of the sexual episodes, which either took place at the Euclid house or at Levine’s room at the Commodore Hotel, where they say he’d often retire with one of his disciples.
“It was your job, basically, to service him under the guise of improving your music playing,” said Ifsich, who described fumbling nights of oral sex and mutual masturbation. “But later: No. There was no pretense. It was obvious what it was.”
Back home at their communal living quarters, Levine’s followers kept to themselves, rarely talking about what was happening.
“Everyone just accepted it,” said James Lestock, a cellist in the ensemble who first described the alleged events to The New York Times. “[Levine] said, ‘We’re going to blindfold everyone so there’s no personalities involved. It’s just going to be sex. . . .’ When we finished, there was no discussion of it.”
As the group solidified, so did its raison d’etre: They would follow Levine out of Ohio to form “The God Philharmonic,” an orchestra whose players were so musically integrated — emotionally free and well-prepared — their performances would be nothing short of celestial.
“He wanted to model it after Toscanini and the NBC Symphony,” said the former member who is no longer in music. “It sounded very good when you were 19 or 20 years old.”
To do so, however, the musicians could not have any distractions. One member recalls Levine chastising him for hiking during a trip to Aspen. Another said he had to explain that a suntan on his arm was not from lounging outside — a Levine sin — but rather from having his arm out the window while driving.
One member described being rebuked after he picked up a newspaper to read the sports scores; several others recalled being reprimanded for reading accounts of the moonwalk.
“ ‘Why are you reading about that,’ ” Greg Smith, who served as Levine’s assistant, recalled the conductor asking him. “ ‘It’s all politics. If they were giving that money to arts.’ . . . He took [the paper] out of my hands.”
Romantic relations were also frowned upon, and some members described how Levine convinced music students to abandon amorous relationships outside the group.
“They were time-wasters,” said Harrell, who said he believed at the time that participation in the group was consensual. “The point of view was that a girl would ruin your musical development. You’ll have children, and you won’t be able to concentrate on the things that you need to concentrate on.”
The same went for parents, and several former members said Levine encouraged others to break off relations with their families.
“They would come to concerts, and they were allowed to give me money, but I was never able to go to their house,” said Ifsich, who later reconciled with his family. “You don’t have anything to do with your parents or your old friends — anybody except the members of the group, because this is just too important to diffuse your energy.”
Others in the group said their sexual affiliation with Levine — inexplicable to their Midwestern parents of the 1960s — had an isolating effect all its own.
“I didn’t feel I could go to my friends and family and say, I just started a relationship with the guy,” said Lestock, who eventually reached a detente with his parents. “I was by myself in the world.”
Meanwhile, the maestro was getting rave reviews, guest conducting symphonies in Pittsburgh, Denver, and Atlanta.
Closer to home, Levine found a champion in John Gidwitz, a young impresario who ran Cleveland Concert Associates. Gidwitz, who had an office at the Euclid house, used the company to help Levine mount a series of high-profile concert operas at Severance Hall, historic home of the Cleveland Orchestra.
The concerts, which included operatic works by Verdi, Beethoven, and others, paired Levine’s student and professional musicians with singers from the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
“The performances were excellent,” said Michael Charry, who at the time was an assistant conductor at the Cleveland Orchestra. “Those singers went back and talked about this talented conductor, and this is how he got his start at the Met.”
Gidwitz, who eventually became president of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, declined to comment.
“There were just hair-raising performance opportunities,” said Steck. “It was exceptional training.”
But for all their success, members of Levine’s inner circle said they were often torn by the beauty they created on stage and the shame at its source.
“I don’t think I did square it,” said Lestock. “I suppose at the most basic level I thought that was something I had to do to stay in the group.”
Lestock, who said he first had sex with Levine as a 17-year-old cello student at Meadow Brook in the summer of 1968, said he initially resisted Levine’s sexual overtures.
“I said the word no — out loud,” recalled Lestock, who said he’d gone to Levine’s room to ask about something from a conducting class.
But Levine, who served as music director for the school’s orchestra that summer, persisted.
“Suppose this could change your life, and it’s the best thing you’ve ever done,” the cellist recalled Levine asking him. “I eventually gave in and let him do that.”
Lestock ultimately followed Levine to Cleveland in the fall of 1969. He’d won a full scholarship to the conservatory, where he quickly adapted to the maestro’s late-night regime at the Euclid house.
He’d thrilled at an early trip to the Aspen festival, when the group caravanned west in a fleet that would eventually include several Volkswagens, Levine’s preferred car at the time.
Back in Cleveland, Lestock excelled under Levine’s tutelage, earning a trip to New York for passing an exam on Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca.”
“We drove to Manhattan, checked into the Wellington Hotel, we ate at Lutèce, and went to see ‘Tosca,’ ” recalled Lestock. “Not only was I being given lunch and music and free room and board when we went to Aspen, but things like that, [which] seemed to me a first-rate style of educating someone.”
Even so, members say that as Levine’s nightly assignations continued, the maestro could also turn abusive.
Some members recalled an evening when Levine, sitting in a recliner, groped one of the few female students in the group — an episode Lestock said he shared more than 20 years ago with journalist Norman Lebrecht, who included a similar version of the incident in his book “Who Killed Classical Music?”
“This was not a sexual thing,” said Smith, who said he also witnessed the incident. “It was like a power play, a control thing.”
Lestock, who last saw Levine in 1978, said he received a call from Levine as Lebrecht’s book went to print.
“He voluntarily said that he had abused others,” recalled Lestock. “He didn’t name names; I didn’t ask. He brought up that point and said that out loud.”
Ifsich, whose family lived in Ohio, recalled he was once punished for secretly driving 40 minutes to attend his sister’s wedding in the spring of 1970.
“When I was caught, I was brought back and held down and tickled and slightly beaten,” recalled Ifsich, who said that more than one person held him down as the group pounced. “A big thing was tickling you for a long time — half an hour or more. Those were usually the days Levine would take you home that night. He felt it would un-inhibit you.”
Lestock, who in the summer of 1972 traveled with Levine’s entourage to the Ravinia Festival in Illinois, said the conductor’s efforts to “un-inhibit” his players occasionally became physically abusive.
He recounted an episode when Levine, who was staying at a nearby hotel, started to berate Lestock for his lack of emotional range, saying he was unhappy with his musical progress.
“He asked me to take my clothes off and he started pinching me,” said Lestock, who added that Levine zeroed in on the sensitive inner-thigh flesh near his groin. “The emotional and physical pain got so great — I didn’t know why he was hurting me.”
Lestock said that although he began to weep, Levine was relentless and would not stop pinching him.
“He made his point: I probably did need to expand my emotional palette that night, but that’s the wrong way to do it,” said Lestock. “I should have said at this point you are no longer my friend, [but] it took me too long to crawl out of that hole.”
In 1972, Levine, just 28, was named principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, less than a year after making his debut on the country’s most vaunted operatic stage.
With their maestro headed to the Met, the inner circle shifted its focus to New York, where several of his followers moved to be near him.
“The idea was that we were going to join the Met and follow Levine to our grave,” said Ifsich.
But while some of the group’s purported members did end up getting jobs at the Met, the circle began to fray as their newly ascendant maestro devoted his time to the Met.
Far from Ohio, some members began to doubt the group’s singular purpose as they scrabbled for gigs while living in a pair of apartments on West 87th St.
And while some of the musicians found success on their own, their collective dream of forming The God Philharmonic seemed increasingly remote.
But members say the broader rupture came in 1974, after they discovered that Ifsich had been secretly seeing a woman he’d met through the New Jersey Symphony.
“We all realized what the hell was going on,” said the former member who is no longer in music. “Many of us just went our own way at that point.”
Harrell, who was already garnering a lot of attention as a soloist, would go on to become one of the most acclaimed cellists of his generation. Ifsich won a section seat at the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, and still others, who either declined or did not respond to interview requests from the Globe, won seats at the Met.
And while no one has reached Levine’s iconic stature, musicians from the Cleveland ensemble went on to hold prominent positions with symphonies from Puerto Rico to Canada, Atlanta to Los Angeles.
Many have died, while others have struggled as freelancers, some washing out of professional music altogether.
Lestock, who left New York in the late 1970s, said that although he still finds joy in making music, the Levine years have left him emotionally damaged.
“I am at the point where I am poor, but I’ve got people I love, ice cream in the freezer, and Kleenex in the bathroom,” he said. “So I’m happy.”
Still others are only now coming to terms with the maestro’s dark legacy.
“I just wish it could have been what it seemed to mean at the time,” said Harrell. “It’s all faded now. It’s very much a tragedy.”