James Levine, NY Metropolitan music director, to retire

For some, the announcement was long in coming. But nothing can be taken away from Levine’s brilliant 40-year career. No replacement has yet been announced.

Metropolitan Opera music director James Levine in 2013 photo. (Image via Wikipedia entry for James Levine)

WASHINGTON, April 16, 2016 – The New York Metropolitan Opera confirmed late last week what opera lovers had long suspected: After serving a remarkable 40 years as the music director of the Met, Maestro James Levine, 72, is retiring at the end of the company’s current season.

Beginning with an accidental onstage tumble in 2006 after the conclusion of a Boston Symphony Orchestra performance he’d just conducted—which resulted in a rotator cuff tear in the right shoulder and subsequent surgery and rehabilitation—Mr. Levine has suffered from a litany of medical problems, including a malignant kidney tumor (successfully removed), at least two corrective spinal surgeries and, more recently, the admission that he has been suffering from some level of Parkinson’s disease for years.

These health issues led to a number of breaks in service with the Met as well as Mr. Levine’s resignation from his additional position as music director for the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2011, when it became obvious he could not continue there. He had previously withdrawn temporarily from all conducting duties with the Met in May of that year, beginning a two-year hiatus during which he underwent extensive physical therapy in an effort to resume his career.

He returned to the podium on a limited basis starting with the 2013-2014 season, conducting from a specially-designed, motorized wheelchair. But during the current 2015-2016 season, he was forced, again by health problems, to withdraw from some scheduled appearances with the company, including a complete withdrawal from all performances of the Met’s much-anticipated fall performances of Alban Berg’s “Lulu,” a unique 20th century opera that had became one of his signature specialties.

In many ways, it’s sad that Mr. Levine’s storied conducting career should have ended in so painful a manner. Quite by accident, I first encountered his work very early in his career at a time when he was already being hailed as something of a conducting wunderkind in his home state of Ohio.

Born in Cincinnati in 1943 to a musical family, young James Levine continued in that tradition as a child, studying piano and making his first solo concert appearance at the age of 10, performing Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Cincinnati Orchestra.

Studying further at Juilliard, beginning in 1961, he also participated in 1964 in the American Conductors project, which at the time was affiliated with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Already attracting considerable attention as a 21-year old conductor, he was recruited back to Ohio, where he served initially as an apprentice conductor (1964-1965) for the Cleveland Orchestra under the legendary George Szell, which is where I first saw him conduct.

Immediately winning popular favor with the Cleveland Orchestra audience, 21-year old “Jimmy” Levine was promoted to be the orchestra’s assistant conductor the following season, a position he held until 1970, serving alongside Szell (1897-1970) and associate conductors Louis Lane (1923-2016) and highly respected choral and symphonic conductor Robert Shaw (1916-1999), who went on to become the longtime music director of the Atlanta Symphony. It was a heady start to a brilliant conducting career.

After leaving the Cleveland Orchestra, Mr. Levine was much in demand as a guest conductor. It was during this period that he was first invited to conduct at the Met, leading the orchestra in a 1971 performance of Puccini’s “Tosca.”

Perhaps due in part to his tutelage by George Szell—music director and chief conductor of the Met during the 1940s before his surprise move to Cleveland—as well as his own impressive Met debut, Mr. Levine was appointed principal conductor of the Met in 1972 before being elevated to the company’s top musical slot in 1976, an astonishing rise to the top for the then 33-year-old conductor. It was the beginning of an almost mythical opera career that is now drawing to its somewhat anti-climactic close.

New Yorkers and musical cognoscenti alike are well known for their ability to grouse about music and musicians. But aside from his last few health-problem-laden years with the Met, Maestro Levine succeeded in bringing this already world-renowned opera company to the pinnacle of quality and success with performances that are often innovative and exciting and which always include the world’s top operatic stars, many of whom have essentially become part of the Met’s “house company” of artists over the years.

While rumors and buzz abound, it’s not clear yet who will succeed Mr. Levine at the Met’s musical helm. It’s been confirmed that Maestro Levine will be returning to the Met next season as music director emeritus to conduct performances of four operas and to work with the company’s Lindemann young artists program, but beyond that, nothing is set in stone.

Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda, who served for many years as a principal guest conductor for the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, impressed many during his appearances with the Met, including a recent turn as conductor for the company’s well-received production of Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers.” But, as most in Washington, D.C., now know, he was recently snatched up by the National Symphony Orchestra to serve as their new music director here to replace the retiring music director, Christoph Eschenbach.

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