On Knowing And Not Knowing About James Levine
When I was 12 years old, James Levine began his tenure as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. My father was a cellist there. This is not an essay about abuse—I never met James Levine. This is an essay about what happens when knowledge is warped by a cult of interpretive genius. It is about having had my understanding of music fundamentally structured by James Levine’s craft when I was the same age as the children he allegedly liked to abuse, and in the process having decided not to know what I knew. It is about what it means to me that my love of music and my understanding of how it should sound were shaped by someone who abused children, and that the institutions in which and by which that love was fostered likely protected the abuser and enabled the abuse.
Before turning to my feelings, a reminder of what is at stake. Here is what James Levine has been accused, credibly, of doing: pathologically abusing power over young people, many of them students or mentees, many of them teenagers, in ways that have haunted their lives and driven some of them close to suicide. So far, four have named themselves: Ashok Pai, Chris Brown, James Lestock, and Albin Ifisch. Surely, more will come forward. There is a pattern to these men’s stories, which detail abuse from the late 1960s through the mid-1990s. All of them met Levine as children or young teenagers, all of them saw him as a musical mentor— some as formal music students, others as fans. In every case, he groomed them, mentoring them and becoming close to them, before initiating unwanted sexual contact.
What these men have described is abuse bordering on torture. Levine lavished attention on them while grooming and abusing them, and overlooked them musically, threatening to harm their careers, if they refused him. He ignored repeated “no”s and browbeat children into accepting his sexual advances. One man remembers that, quoting the New York Times, “in a hotel near the Ravinia Festival… Mr. Levine caused him physical pain, telling him that he should ‘expand’ his ‘range of emotions’ and pinching him—repeatedly and hard—on his legs. ‘Once I started to break down and cry, he continued to try to hurt me.’”
Read these accounts before reading mine. Read them and understand what happened to these men—the trauma of these acts and their concealment. I believe these men. I believe that this is what James Levine did to children.
When I was 12 years old and James Levine began his tenure as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, my parents sat me down and told me that there were serious rumors swirling around him. They told me they had heard he had been inappropriate with young boys. At that time, I was often backstage at the BSO and Tanglewood, hanging out with friends who were also the children of BSO players, listening to rehearsals. They told me never to be alone in a room with James Levine. They told me to walk the other way if I saw him coming.
Over the next four years, at BSO concerts I attended (seated in empty second-balcony seats or on the sides of the Tanglewood Shed by friendly ushers), James Levine gave me an introduction to and education in the orchestral repertoire. My thinking about orchestral music—the way that it sounds right, when I hear it in my head—was profoundly shaped by his programming and his interpretive stance. There is a wide swath of music that I cannot think about without thinking about James Levine.
When I think of James Levine I think about a program of Wagner at Carnegie Hall that opened with excerpts from “Rheingold” and ended with an Immolation Scene that left me in convulsive tears. I think about shaking in my seat at Symphony Hall at the clarity and power of the major chords that signify the opening of the Fifth Door in “Bluebeard’s Castle.” I think about a searing Karita Mattila in “Fidelio,” a “Gurre-Lieder” of profound balance and clarity. “Moses und Aron,” Mozart Symphonies, “Missa Solemnis”—I heard many of these pieces live for the first time in the context of Levine’s early years as Music Director in Boston.
And what gorgeous performances those were, full of balance and snap and life and vision. The programming was challenging and exciting. A sold-out hall for a program of Ives, Foss, Carter and Gershwin—how thrilling that was! Levine wrote short notes for each program he conducted that I always read carefully. These were written frankly and with intelligence, they didn’t talk down but instead talked about the music like music. “ ‘Missa Solemnis’ is the greatest piece ever written. I mean it.” Every discussion and every review of those performances focused on Levine. His conducting, his “orchestra-building,” his vision. I internalized this language in the same way I internalized the idea that programming could be wildly juxtaposed and in the same way that I internalized Levine’s valuing of balance and restrained baton technique. These are the things I learned to value in music.
From the time I was 12 years old, I had heard the rumors. I had heard them as close as second-hand. Then I was deeply moved—and the structures of my appreciation for music were created—by Levine’s performances. I decided the rumors weren’t true.
In 2001, in the New Yorker, Alex Ross reviewed a book by Johanna Fiedler about the Met. In the book, Fiedler dismissed the industry gossip about Levine as malicious rumor, fact-free and made up. Ross agreed, writing that the rumors “belong in the category of personalized urban legends that attach themselves to certain celebrities for no discernible reason…his most effective response has been his performances, which make all the gossip sound bitter and small.” How could the rumors be true if Levine’s performances were so great? I don’t include this quote to shame Ross (who has apologized for writing it). I include it because I, as a teenager raised in classical music’s culture, made the same conclusions. I haunted internet message boards and blog comment sections, googling the rumors, trying to find any discussion or debunking of them that seemed valid. I settled on a set of theories that chalked the rumors up to the vicious homophobia of conservative donors at the Met. Maybe Levine lived an unconventional life, I thought, and a cabal of Met donors were uncomfortable with it. Maybe he dated younger men, in their early 20s, and gossips had adjusted the ages down. Maybe it had to do with the way he looks—the glasses, the hair, the large frame.
Like many queer people, especially queers with a political and cultural interest in defending non-normative sexual behavior between consenting adults, I fear sex panic and its consequences. Levine cynically played to these fears in interviews, begging for privacy, claiming that he was being ‘good.’ “I’m too good to be true,” he once told The New York Times when asked about what was always phrased as ‘rumors’ surrounding his private life. “Look, I’m not a doctor married with three children living in suburbia. I live my life openly; I don’t make pretenses of this or that. What there is is completely apparent.” I accepted this, knowing how quickly still-alive and still-dangerous right-wing lies can turn into attacks on sexual freedom and privacy. Part of my sadness now is about how those feelings of good will were twisted to protect abuses of trust and power.
I was just a fan, and a young one; but these justifications, these excuses for not knowing, were shared by powerful administrators. The Met stated that it was “deeply disturbed by the the news articles” published about James Levine. The Boston Symphony’s carefully-parsed statement says no one approached management “during Levine’s tenure with the BSO, from 2004-2011,” with any reports of assault or harassment. I suppose it is possible that the teenaged children of BSO members could joke with one another about James Levine’s pedophilia while its administrators had never heard anything that gave any “cause for concern.” I suppose it is also possible that in 1979 the Metropolitan Opera conducted a deep and probing investigation of the reports it had received. In an interview with Die Welt recently, the coloratura soprano Edda Moser recalled that “Jimmy always had a bunch of little boys around…between seven and maybe 12 years old. They always sat in the wings during the stage rehearsal…they only really got on our nerves because they always banged their feet against the clock and disturbed us musically. They waited for Levine until the rehearsal was over.” Maybe it’s possible that this happened, and that no one at the Met noticed or decided to investigate further; and maybe they did investigate further and found nothing. I will only note, in evaluating the plausibility of that theory, that the Met first learned of the police report that broke this story over a year ago; and that after receiving that police report, even in the context of the overwhelming rumors and the previous incident in 1979, conducted no internal investigation, made no public announcement, granted Levine an honorary title, and continued to engage him for performances.
Gossip is not enough, and should not be enough, to end a career. But gossip this persistent—and documented reports to Met management in 1979 and 2016—should have triggered investigations far more serious than those that occurred. There are still people decrying Levine’s suspension from the Met. Still, after four victims and counting have come forward to publicly share their stories. After a police report. Still. One Twitter user wrote, “right on the heels of that magnificent Verdi Requiem, could you not hold off on this cruel public statement until after a fair hearing?” No one wants to think that an artist who has moved them deeply could have also used his enormous power to hurt people so badly. The BSO’s current Music Director, Andris Nelsons, has said publicly that sexual harassment doesn’t occur in classical music because “art makes people better humans.” This too is part of a narrative of genius in which beautiful sounds could not possibly have been made by ugly people. Surely it is past time to kill that narrative dead.
James Levine became the central ingredient in my understanding of how orchestral music and opera should sound and what a music director should be. Now it is apparent that he existed within structures that allowed for the abuse and violation of children.
Classical music’s culture—in which interpretive genius is valued above all else, in which people with that genius are enabled and cushioned from the effects of their actions, in which organizations with declining audiences have made themselves more and more reliant on branded stars and oligarch donors—decided that James Levine’s artistic contributions were more important than the health and safety of children. In classical music, we fetishize people like James Levine for their interpretive genius. We construct systems that protect and enable them and justify it by citing their gift, their potential, the beauty they bring into the world. We do this without accounting for the nightmarish experiences of their victims or the potential that is lost due to their crimes.
The cult of interpretive genius in which a single man can come to be seen as so gifted and important that institutions and systems will protect him for 40 years is connected to a view of sexual abuse that sees perpetrators as uniquely perverted predators rather than as the horribly predictable outcomes of the accumulation of power. In order to make and hear music in healthy ways, and think about sex in healthy ways, we must destroy and replace the insular star system and the dysfunctional and unjust accumulations of power it enables. In the end this is how I have resolved to understand the profound beauty I heard those years in Boston. What I heard was not simply “James Levine, conducting,” but all the brilliant musicians and singers who made those works come to life. They always mattered more anyway. A healthy musical culture would have known that. It would have taught me that alongside, or instead of, the cult of the great-man interpreter. A healthy musical culture would have valued working musicians—and new work and its composers and advocates—more than any individual star conductor paid millions of dollars annually.
Last Saturday afternoon I got home to my apartment from the library at about seven. I idly checked Parterre and noticed there was a Met broadcast of the Verdi Requiem that had started an hour or so earlier, I clicked over to the stream and listened to the last 20 minutes. As it turns out, they were likely the last minutes of James Levine’s career. The Requiem ends with a hushed plea: Libera me, Domine, de morte æterna, in die illa tremenda. “Deliver me from death, God, on that fateful day.” Krassimira Stoyanova intoned the final lines. The last chord rang out. The orchestra played beautifully, the chorus sang beautifully. They will be heard again. Levine held the applause back, as he often did at the end of concerts. The audience sat in silence for 15 seconds. 30 seconds. A minute. The silence held, as it had held for 40 years. Eventually, inevitably, it broke. ¶