James Lawrence Levine (pron.: //; born June 23, 1943) is an American conductor and pianist. He is best known for his four decades as Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera. On leave since May 2011 due to multiple health problems, he returned to performing in May 2013.
Levine's first performance conducting the Metropolitan Opera was on June 5, 1971, and, as of May 2011, he had conducted 2,442 Met performances, a record. The conductor has also held music director positions with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic and the Ravinia Festival. In 1997, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.
Early years 
Levine was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, to a musical family: his maternal grandfather was a cantor in a synagogue, his father was a violinist who led a dance band, and his mother was an actress. He began to play the piano as a small child. At the age of 10, he made his concert debut as soloist in Felix Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 2 at a youth concert of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
Levine subsequently studied music with Walter Levin, first violinist in the LaSalle Quartet. In 1956 he took piano lessons with Rudolf Serkin at the Marlboro Music School, Vermont. In the following year he began studies with Rosina Lhévinne at the Aspen Music School. After graduating from Walnut Hills High School, the acclaimed magnet school in Cincinnati, he entered the Juilliard School of Music in New York City in 1961, and took courses in conducting with Jean Morel. He graduated from the Juilliard School in 1964 and joined the American Conductors project connected with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
From 1964 to 1965, Levine served as an apprentice to George Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra and then served as assistant conductor until 1970. That year, he also made his debut as guest conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra at its summer home at Robin Hood Dell. He made his debut in that same year with the Welsh National Opera and the San Francisco Opera. In June, 1971, he was called in at the last moment to substitute for an ailing István Kertész in the season opener of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's summer festival, the Ravinia Festival; the program was the Symphony no. 2, "Resurrection," of Gustav Mahler. This concert began a long association with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: two years later, in 1973, he was appointed music director of the Ravinia Festival (his predecessor in this position was Kertész, who had died in April). Levine held the position until 1993, and made numerous recordings with the orchestra, including the symphonies and German Requiem of Johannes Brahms, and major works of Gershwin, Holst, Berg, Beethoven, Mozart, and others. In 1990, at the request of Roy E. Disney, he arranged the music and conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the soundtrack of Fantasia 2000, released by Walt Disney Pictures. He also served as music director of the Cincinnati May Festival (1974–1978).
Metropolitan Opera 
Levine made his Metropolitan Opera debut on June 5, 1971, in a festival performance of Tosca. His success led to further appearances and to his appointment as its principal conductor in 1973. He became music director in 1976. In 1983, he served as conductor and musical director for the Franco Zeffirelli screen adaptation of La Traviata, which featured the Met orchestra and chorus members. He became the company's first artistic director in 1986, and relinquished the title in 2004.
Under his leadership, the Metropolitan Opera orchestra and chorus has become one of the finest operatic ensembles in the world, punctuated by the regular concert series for the orchestra and chamber ensembles he began at Carnegie Hall. On his recent appointment as General Manager of the Met, Peter Gelb emphasized that James Levine would be welcome to remain as long as he wanted to direct music there.
At the Met, Levine has led numerous new productions of works of Mozart, Verdi, Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, Gioachino Rossini, Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Kurt Weill, Claude Debussy, Alban Berg, and George Gershwin. For the 25th anniversary of his Met debut, Levine conducted the world premiere of John Harbison's The Great Gatsby, commissioned especially to mark the occasion.
Levine has led the Metropolitan Opera on many domestic and international tours. The company broadcasts regular Live-In-HD television around the world to cinemas, and live Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts every Saturday afternoons around the world each season from December to April.
Levine has not conducted at the Met since April 2010 due to ill health (see below). However, he returned to the podium to lead the Met's orchestra in a May 19, 2013 concert at Carnegie Hall. He will conduct three productions at the opera house and three concerts at Carnegie Hall in the 2013-14 season.
Boston Symphony Orchestra 
Levine first conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) in April 1972. In October 2001, Levine was named music director of the BSO, effective with the 2004–2005 season, with an initial contract of five years, becoming the first American-born conductor to head the BSO.
One unique condition that Levine negotiated was increased flexibility of the time allotted for rehearsal, allowing the orchestra additional time to prepare more challenging works. After the start of his tenure, the orchestra also established an "Artistic Initiative Fund" of about US$40 million to fund the more expensive of Levine's projects.
One criticism of Levine during his BSO tenure is that he did not attend many orchestra auditions. A 2005 article reported that Levine had attended two out of 16 auditions during his tenure up to that time. Levine himself has responded that he has the ability to provide input on musician tenure decisions after the initial probationary period, and that it is difficult to know how well a given player will fit the given position until that person has had a chance to work with the orchestra: "My message is the audition isn't everything."
Another 2005 report stated that during Levine's first season as music director, the greater workload from the demands of playing more unfamiliar and contemporary music has increased physical stress with some of the BSO musicians. Levine and the players met to discuss this, and he agreed to program changes to lessen these demands. Levine has received general critical praise for revitalizing the orchestra's quality and repertoire since the beginning of his tenure.
In April 2010, in the wake of Levine's continuing health problems, it emerged that Levine had not officially signed a contract extension, so that Levine was the BSO's music director without a signed contract.
On March 2, 2011, the BSO announced that Levine would step down from his post as Music Director in September 2011, after the Orchestra's Tanglewood season. He had been experiencing ongoing health problems, starting with an onstage fall in 2006 that resulted in a torn rotator cuff and started discussion of how much longer Levine's tenure with the BSO would be. The announcement brought to a sad end Levine's belated bid for recognition as a transformational orchestral conductor.
Conducting in Europe 
Levine's Boston Symphony contract limited his guest appearances with American orchestras but Levine has conducted regularly in Europe, with the Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, and at the Bayreuth Festival. Levine has been a regular guest with the Philharmonia of London and the Dresden Staatskapelle. Since 1975 he has conducted regularly at the Salzburg Festival and the annual July Verbier Festival. From 1999 to 2004 he was chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic, and was credited with improving the quality of instrumental ensemble during his tenure.
Chamber Music and Work as Accompanist 
Work with students 
Levine has initiated the Lindemann Young Artists Development Program at the Metropolitan Opera, a professional training program for graduated singers with, today, many famous alumni.
Levine was conductor of the UBS Verbier Festival Orchestra, the student resident orchestra at the annual summer music festival in Verbier, Switzerland, from 2000 through 2006. It was Levine's first long-term commitment to a student orchestra since becoming music director at the Met. After becoming Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Levine also served as Music Director of the Tanglewood Music Center, the BSO's acclaimed summer academy at Tanglewood for student instrumentalists, singers, composers, and conductors. There he conducted the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, directed fully staged opera performances with student singers, and gave master classes for singers and conductors.
Levine himself has said in interviews:
"At my age, you are naturally inclined towards teaching. You want to teach what you have learned to the next generation so that they don't have to spend time reinventing the wheel. I was lucky that I met the right mentors and teachers at the right moment. I love working with young musicians and singers, and those at the Tanglewood Music Center are unequivocally some of the finest and most talented in the world."
Conductors he has helped and influenced through his musical mentoring include Marco Armiliato, James Conlon, and John Keenan.
Health problems 
Levine has experienced recurrent health issues in recent years, including sciatica and what he has called "intermittent tremors". On March 1, 2006, Levine tripped and fell onstage during a standing ovation after a performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and tore the rotator cuff in his right shoulder, leaving the remaining subscription concerts in Boston to his assistant conductor at the time, Jens Georg Bachmann. Later that month, Levine underwent surgery to repair the injury. He returned to the podium on July 7, 2006, leading the BSO at Tanglewood.
Levine withdrew from the majority of the Tanglewood 2008 summer season, because of surgery required to remove a kidney with a malignant cyst. He returned to the podium in Boston on September 24, 2008, leading the BSO's season opening concert at Symphony Hall. On September 29, 2009, it was announced that Levine would undergo emergency back surgery for a herniated disk. He missed some three weeks of engagements, including a season opening performance at Carnegie Hall with the BSO, performances of Tosca at the Met, and regular BSO subscription concerts.
In March 2010, the BSO announced that Levine would miss the remainder of the Boston Symphony season because of back pain. The Metropolitan Opera also announced, on April 4, 2010, that Levine was withdrawing from the remainder of his scheduled performances for the season. According to the Met, Levine was required to have "corrective surgery for an ongoing lower back problem." Levine returned to conducting duties at the Met and the BSO at the beginning of the 2010-11 season, but in February 2011 he cancelled his Boston engagements for the rest of the season, including the Tanglewood summer festival. These cancellations were followed by the announcement that Levine would officially resign from his post as Music Director on September 1, 2011.
In the summer of 2011 Levine underwent further surgery on his back. In September, after falling and injuring his back while on vacation in Vermont, it was announced that he would not conduct at the Met at least for the rest of 2011, and that Fabio Luisi would step up to the role of principal conductor. In December, he ruled himself out of performing again before the fall of 2013.
After two years of surgery and physical therapy Levine returned to conducting for the first time on May 19, 2013, in a concert with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Conducting from a motorized wheelchair, Levine led a critically lauded program of works by Wagner, Beethoven and Schubert. "You have to admire the pluck and determination he has shown in this remarkable comeback," observed New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini.
Levine can be seen and heard in many audio and video recordings. Levine has recorded extensively with many orchestras and especially often with the Metropolitan Opera. His performance of Aïda with Leontyne Price, her last in opera, was preserved on video and may be seen at the Met's own online archive of performances. Of particular note are his performances of Wagner's complete Der Ring des Nibelungen. A studio recording made for Deutsche Grammophon in 1987–1989 can be found on compact disc and a 1989 live performance of the Ring is available on DVD.
Levine was featured in the animated Disney film Fantasia 2000. He conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the soundtrack recordings of all the music in the film (with the exception of one segment from the original 1940 Fantasia). Levine is also seen in the film talking to Mickey Mouse before introducing the Pomp and Circumstance Marches segment.
- Information compiled by the Metropolitan Opera Archives
- Lifetime Honors - National Medal of Arts
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|Music Director, Metropolitan Opera
1976 – present