- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 7, 2002

Multitalented, multifaceted James Levine is best known today as the artistic director of New York's Metropolitan Opera, where he has served for 30 years and counting. It's an unprecedented run
for any musician at any high-end performing arts venue.
Maestro Levine's tenure has been notable for his exceptional attention to fine musicianship and close ensemble playing, as well as a canny, eclectic mix of old and new opera programming that keeps the art alive and the turnstiles clicking. His hard work and attention to detail has resulted in a fiscally healthy institution that continues to reign as the brightest star in the opera firmament. During his tenure, the Met has continued to attract global superstars who are drawn by the exquisite quality of the company's musicianship, as well as their desire to work with him.
In fact, Mr. Levine's tenure at the Met can rightly be called the company's Golden Age. In program notes for Placido Domingo's 2001 birthday tribute there, Mr. Levine praised the superstar tenor who also serves as the Washington Opera's artistic director as "one of a handful of truly complete and indispensable artists of our time." But the same might also be said of James Levine. Under his direction, the Met arguably the nation's opera company has improved performance quality and enlarged its repertoire, particularly in 20th century works. Mr. Levine has overseen much of this artistic growth personally, having conducted more than 2,000 performances of 75 operas with the company since his debut. Much of the Met's huge discography has also been amassed during his tenure, as well.
In 1989, his energy and enthusiasm were instrumental in bringing Richard Wagner's complete "Ring Cycle" back into the company's repertory for the first time in 50 years.
He has also expanded the media influence of the Met across the country and the world a reach already considerable due to its long-running series of radio broadcasts by starting the "Live From the Met" and "Metropolitan Opera Presents" telecasts frequently seen on PBS.
Mr. Levine has helped the opera's orchestra to stretch its collective wings in other areas of the musical repertoire as well, by taking it on domestic and international concert tours. The first of these, in 1991, was a significant critical success, and other tours followed, including appearances at the Seville Expo '92, in Frankfurt, Germany, to celebrate the city's 1,200th anniversary in 1994, and three visits to Japan.
In more intimate venues than the opera house, Mr. Levine still occasionally puts down the baton to display his considerable talents as an outstanding piano soloist. He has also become the preferred accompanist through the years for such vocal artists as Jennie Tourel, Leontyne Price, and Nicolai Gedda, as well as contemporary superstars like Mr. Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Kathleen Battle and Kiri Te Kanawa.
Mr. Levine's glittering career began a long way from the bright lights of New York, on the banks of the Ohio River. He was born in Cincinnati in 1943 to an actress mother and a father who worked as a violinist in a dance band.
Not surprisingly, he displayed an intense musical curiosity almost from birth. He has frequently stated that "music chose me because I can't remember life without it." He was soon discovered to be a genuine child prodigy, eventually making his debut as a piano soloist at age 10, performing Felix Mendelssohn's sprightly 2nd Piano Concerto at a young people's concert with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He continued his musical studies in Cincinnati before moving on to The Juilliard School in New York.
In 1963, Mr. Levine received an unusual invitation from George Szell, the Cleveland Orchestra's prickly but legendary conductor and music director, to become an apprentice conductor. Within two years he was quickly elevated at age 22 to be the orchestra's youngest assistant conductor ever. Older Cleveland concertgoers still remember "Jimmy" Levine as a superb musician sure to become one of the greats.
During his five-year stay in Cleveland, Mr. Levine began to hone his distinctive, minimalist conducting technique under the tutelage of Mr. Szell, who was notoriously undemonstrative on the podium unlike the more flamboyant Leonard Bernstein who got most of the media limelight in the 1960s. (Mr. Szell believed that showy, theatrical gesticulations by the conductor detracted from the music.)
In a November 2000 interview with the Guardian's Martin Kettle, Mr. Levine clearly endorsed his mentor's philosophy. "I have a big problem with conductors who gesture a lot," he said. "There is no relationship between the gestures and what an orchestra will do."
After successful guest appearances with several orchestras, including one in 1970 with the Philadelphia Orchestra during its summer Robin Hood Dell, Mr. Levine attracted the attention of the Met. He was invited to debut with the company as conductor for performances of Puccini's "Tosca" in 1971, in which he worked well with established singers Grace Bumbry and Franco Corelli.
Impressed by his easy, collegial way with musicians, cast and crew, as well as the high level of musicianship he had achieved by working with the Cleveland Orchestra and other ensembles, the Met made him principal conductor within two years of his debut there, promoted him to musical director in 1975 at age 32, and elevated him once again to his current post in 1986.
Like Mr. Domingo, a Kennedy Center Honoree two years ago, he has remained a popular fixture in his adopted city ever since. Today, Mr. Levine has become the best-known American conductor since Mr. Bernstein first electrified the musical world in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
In addition to his duties at the Met, Mr. Levine has frequently appeared around the globe with orchestras as diverse as the Chicago Symphony and the Berlin and Vienna philharmonic orchestras. He has regularly guest-conducted at the Salzburg and Bayreuth festivals and has accompanied the "Three Tenors" on their smash-hit world tours.
On a lighter note, he delightfully reprised the quirky role of the late Leopold Stokowski in Disney's recent update of its 1940 animated classic, "Fantasia 2000." Mr. Levine also finds the time to serve as the artistic director of Switzerland's new Verbier Festival Youth Orchestra and as the chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic, although he is likely to step down from this latter post in 2004.
In a surprise announcement last year, the venerable Boston Symphony Orchestra announced that Mr. Levine would be taking over the reins from longtime conductor Seiji Ozawa commencing with the 2004-2005 season. Mr. Levine has already assumed the title of music director designate but appears in no hurry to put down the baton at the Met, either. It's already an urban legend in the New York-Boston axis that the arrival of Amtrak's new Acela Express helped Maestro Levine finalize his decision.
A genial conductor, a brilliant musician, and a friend and collaborator with the finest singers in the world, Mr. Levine shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. If anything, particularly with his upcoming duties in Boston, he is becoming even more active in the world of music, bravely taking on an orchestra whose quality has flagged over the past decade or so. He approaches his 60th year and his additional duties with the same optimism and youthful enthusiasm that initially catapulted him to fame and acclaim.


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