James Levine: The Man and the Musician
Alice Tully Hall
James Levine, Paul Gruber (Interviewer)
J. Levine (© Koichi Miura)
At Alice Tully Hall on a balmy September evening, The Metropolitan Opera Guild and an audience filled with admirers – famous and otherwise – honored James Levine for his singular contribution to the world of opera. Levine himself was in attendance. The first words that we heard from him were, for me, the most memorable: “Music chose me,” he said. I can’t remember life without it.” And for those of us who have been privileged to accompany the Metropolitan Opera through all or even part of the thirty-eight years since Levine’s debut at the Met, it’s impossible to remember life without him. The sheer numbers are staggering. Through the end of last season, Levine conducted 2,397 performances of eighty-two operas at the Met. These figures, of course, do not include his many outside engagements. Indeed, his sheer stamina is almost as impressive as his musical gifts.
For this tribute, Levine was interviewed on stage by Paul Gruber of the Metropolitan Opera Guild. The format was informal. Despite his talent and accomplishments, Levine was unfailingly modest in his remarks. He identified three key elements of his success: Luck, the right teachers, and the right opportunities.
Although we were in a large space, the atmosphere was surprisingly intimate. This was due to the almost palpable affection in the hall and also to the format. Levine brought with him home movies taken by his father. We saw him as a bubbly and playful toddler, already engaged in a fair approximation of conducting. We also saw him as a young pianist. Interwoven with the film clips was commentary from Levine. There were also fascinating stories told, on film, by singers and instrumentalists who have been part of his musical life. I particularly enjoyed the reminiscences of Roberta Peters. She told a charming anecdote about the ten year-old Levine, who came backstage to visit her, carrying a heavily marked up score, after a performance of Lucia. Rather taken aback, she asked him how old he was. He said he was ten. And then he asked her how old she was! Levine, himself, had anecdotes aplenty to pass onto the audience. His fond remembrance of the tactful way in which he told Franco Corelli to stop counting and just breathe, nearly brought down the house.
Levine told the audience that he had learned from great artists – singers, instrumentalists, and composers in various styles. On film, his colleagues spoke about what and how they learned from him. Dawn Upshaw was a particularly gracious and interesting contributor to the proceedings. The reminiscences were both fascinating and touching. The film clips provided marvelous insights into how Levine makes music and how he gently coaches singers and instrumentalists to do their best. And they allowed us to relive some magical musical moments, including an extraordinary performance of the prelude to Lohengrin which concluded the program.
Levine called these opera excerpts preserved on film “sophisticated souvenirs.” From the ninety-three broadcasts with which he was involved, he chose a several that were most meaningful to him. And a wonderful cavalcade of memories it was. After the intermission, musicians (mostly singers) were introduced from the audience. Mention of the names of some who were there should give a flavor of the evening: Teresa Stratas, Roberta Peters, Martina Arroyo, Judith Blegen, Catherine Malfitano, Sherrill Milnes, Cornell MacNeil, Itzhak Perlmann, Lynn Harrell, Delores Zajick, Johan Botha, and Dan Ettinger (who is conducting The Marriage of Figaro this season.
Levine’s leitmotif throughout was gratitude, a sentiment that was returned in full measure by everyone in the audience. The evening was a joy from start to finish.
Arlene Judith Klotzko