The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.
— Julius Caesar
James Levine exploded onto the Tanglewood scene in 2005. Suddenly, the man was everywhere, rehearsing and conducting the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood Music Center orchestras, coaching conducting students, sitting in on other master classes, speaking out.
And then he faded. And faded. And faded ...
Health problems forced him to miss more and more concerts and ultimately leave as BSO music director in 2011.
In 2018, allegations of sexual misconduct made him a nonperson at both the Metropolitan Opera, where he had a distinguished 47-year career culminating as its music director, and the BSO. He was, as they say these days, “canceled.”
Levine would “never be employed or contacted by the BSO at any time in the future,” the BSO declared.
Then, on March 9, he died at 77 in California.
This is a tragedy in the classic Greek sense: the hero undone by a tragic flaw. For Levine, an international force and audience favorite at the Met, it was a personal fall from power and grace. More than that, it was a tragedy for opera and symphonic music, depriving them of one of the major, if not great, conductors of his time.
Levine served, concurrently with the Met, as BSO director from 2004 to 2011. For the first of his five Tanglewood seasons, it was a glorious ride. After the BSO’s decline during the final years of Seiji Ozawa’s 29-year reign, followed by a three-year interregnum filled by guest conductors, here was not only a new man, but a new man bursting with ideas and energy.
At Tanglewood, it went like this:
In 2005, to announce his arrival, he conducted Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, “The Symphony of 1,000.” He didn’t muster the idealized goal of 1,000 musicians onstage, but he did amass somewhere close to 300, who uttered mysterious whispers and raised a literally holy racket.
To open the next season, he led a Saturday night-Sunday afternoon double header of Berlioz’ monumental opera “Les Troyens.” Opera had been an integral part of Tanglewood since the beginning, but not on this epic scale.
Both events were a thunderous success, as were many events in between.
In 2008, to celebrate the centenary of still-living American composer Elliott Carter, Levine devoted Tanglewood’s entire five-day Festival of Contemporary Music to Carter’s music — 47 compositions, plus the opera “What Next?” Because of kidney surgery, Levine missed the entire week. Others deputized for him. He was out for the rest of the season.
Those programs encapsulate a tenure that ended in weeks and months of health-related cancellations, both in Symphony Hall and at Tanglewood, until his resignation became inevitable. The BSO estimated that overall, he missed a fifth of his scheduled programs. He went on conducting afterward at the Met, though visibly weakened and sitting in a motorized wheelchair, until allegations broke of his dalliances with and domination of young men over a three-decade span.
The facts were never entirely clear, with Levine and the Met inconclusively suing each other. But anathematization by both the Met and BSO followed.
In the Boston Globe, critic Jeremey Eichler wrote: “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. 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.”
Levine was the Ozawa opposite. Where Ozawa led with a choreographic but tightly controlled beat and results, Levine used loose gestures on the podium to encourage spontaneity in the playing. His keen sense of drama in opera carried over into the symphonic repertoire. He brought out the best in the BSO and turned the Met Orchestra into one of the great orchestras of the world.
With the BSO, he performed and commissioned a generous dose of new music, much of it, like Carter’s, from the more difficult end of the spectrum. It endeared him to critics but not the lawn-sitter Tanglewood audience. One such BSO concert drew only 700 listeners to the 5,000-seat Shed.
The BSO gambled when it poached Levine from the Munich Philharmonic, waiting three years for him to finish out his contract as principal conductor there. With the BSO he conducted only partial seasons — four to five weeks at Tanglewood, about the same as Ozawa. But he was shouldering artistic responsibility for two of the largest musical organizations in the county. It was a pretty heavy lift for anyone.
And rumor was trailing him. For years there had been talk of early sexual indiscretions, but investigation after investigation, including one by the BSO, turned up no proof. Then, in the arts as in politics, revelations about pedophile priests, and the #MeToo movement, created an atmosphere in which survivors of abuse spoke out. Hero after hero fell.
As a result, Levine’s concerts have disappeared from BSO rebroadcasts, as have his operas on the Met’s rebroadcasts. Ozawa was still talked about on the grounds, but with the arrival of Andris Nelsons as director, the buzz was about him, not Levine.
In 2010, Levine pulled off a stunt that may become legendary if he is ever spoken of again. On the afternoon of Oct. 9, he conducted a matinee performance of Wagner’s 155-minute “Das Rheingold” at the Met. He hopped a plane and at 8 p.m. arrived at Symphony Hall, bringing baritone Bryn Terfel with him, just in time to conduct the BSO in Mahler’s 80-minute “Resurrection” Symphony.
Excess. Overreach. Overwork. For a man whose health had been shaky, and certainly for the BSO, it was a risk, but he brought it off. James Levine had two addictions. One nourished music and the world. The other was the stuff of Shakespearean and Greek drama.
Can art be separated from the person who created it? Do we stop listening to Wagner because he was a rabid anti-Semite? Beethoven because he was cruel to his family?
Someday, let’s hope, we can remember Levine’s music if not the man.