Monday, March 19, 2018


I just finished reading a very disturbing article in the Boston Globe about the way James Levine allegedly conducted himself with his proteges over several decades. Disturbing because it is the kind of thing that can happen with someone who is very charismatic, very talented and somewhat empty, morally. Perhaps he was borderline sociopathic.
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.
That's the opening and you don't have to read any further to recognize that here you are dealing with the kind of malignant egoism that knows no bounds. I doubt that I ever met anyone quite this unsavory in my career--the closest was a conductor at the first music school I attended who tended a bit this way as well, though he was a heterosexual. The one time I sensed this kind of manipulation from him, when he was asking me to take part in a new contemporary piece and thought he could motivate me by demeaning the last performance I gave, my reaction was likely not what he expected: I handed him back the part and told him to get someone else.

I seem to have a kind of radar for this kind of personality. I can sense it from afar and steer clear. In my mind there is nothing to be gained by becoming part of a personality cult. Indeed, this really repudiates all your responsibilities as an artist. And what a lot of horseshit Levine was peddling:
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.
 Oh, please! The first requirement of an artist, in my view, is not to be controlled by some ambitious ass.
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.
Yes, musicians, when they are this cut off from ordinary life, can fall into such repugnant and ridiculous beliefs and behaviors. But it is still astonishing to read that this was justified by some aesthetic nonsense. The truth is that there are always little corners in the music world where people like this can attain to a position of power and wreak their will on the vulnerable. Levine just seems to have been the most prominent of this tribe.

I don't know Levine's work as a conductor--for some reason I have never made any attempt to seek out his recordings. For this reason, I am not devastated at these revelations. If similar things were revealed about musicians that I have great respect for, such as Gustav Leonhardt, Nikolas Harnoncourt, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Dmitri Shostakovich, Grigory Sokolov or Mstislav Rostropovich, I would likely feel quite differently.


Marc said...

Am making my way into your Gubaidulina posts and saw this one pop up. They knew, too, administrators and (some, anyway, of the) trustees: and while in a sense it is perfectly understandable to not want to have anything to do with such business (and I gather that the 'assaults' were not physically coerced, for what that extenuation is worth)-- it is difficult not to think of Pilate washing his hands of the sordid mess, innocens ego sum a sanguine justorum-- I think it's obvious that those people failed in their duty to the Metropolitan Opera and its artists. Well, well, off to the sanity and beauty of Vespers.

Bryan Townsend said...

People who revere artists often end up in administrative positions in arts organizations. And sometimes they become overawed by the charismatic presence of someone like Levine. They forget that they have the same moral responsibilities that everyone has and these are not annulled by aesthetic mysticism.

Will Wilkin said...

To the extent these stories are true, there is obviously something very weird and wrong with Mr. Levine. But there is also something wrong with anybody who allows themself to be so treated. Honestly I don't understand ANY of it....

Bryan Townsend said...

Nor do I, frankly! But there are some artists who do have enormous charismatic power. Sadly, some of them use it for unworthy ends.