You probably saw the news that James Levine, 72, is stepping down as music director of the Metropolitan Opera after 40 years, for health reasons. He will finish the remainder of his very busy season, and continue as music director emeritus, the first ever position at the Met. He has struggled with Parkinson’s Disease for some time, and has had other severe health issues, as well.
Levine is a Cincinnati native, and having lived in Cincinnati for most of my adult life, I have learned that just about everyone here a) knew his parents b) heard him play piano as a child, or c) went to Walnut Hills High School with him.
Metropolitan Opera Music Director James Levine returned to the Met podium to conduct the performance of Mozart’s “Così fan tutte” on Tuesday, September 24, 2013.
Photo: Naomi Vaughan/Metropolitan Opera
Of course, his career at the Met is unparalleled. Levine has led 2,551 performances—far more than any other conductor in Met history—working with thousands of the world’s most gifted musicians and conducting more than 85 different operas, ranging from 18th century works to contemporary world premieres. And of course, his work with the Met Orchestra outside of the pit is legendary. I was privileged to hear a deeply moving all-Dvorak performance in Carnegie Hall in 2014.
But 11 years ago, Levine came to Cincinnati to conduct Berlioz’s Requiem with the Cincinnati May Festival. (What a performance that was!) He was music director of that esteemed festival from 1974 to 78, and hand-picked his successor, then a very young James Conlon. I recently found a “diary” of that weekend. It is very special, partly because Cincinnati is a very special place.
His mother, Helen, has now passed away, and everyone is 11 years older. Maybe it will be a chapter in that book someday.
James Levine, back in Cincinnati for the first time in 25 years at the May Festival, May 2005: A diary
First, the promised interview: Back in 1998, I had a two-hour interview with Levine in his office at the Met, so he knew who I was. His mother sends him all of my articles, and he reads them, which I still find amazing. I had been assured another one-on-one interview with Levine in January, in New York, when I was going there with the symphony for a Carnegie Hall concert. However, there was the Blizzard of 2005 the day I was to have my interview at the Met, and all airports were closed. I got a message from Levine’s personal assistant, Ken Hunt, that he would reschedule it with me, but he didn’t know when.
Another appointment was made for Tuesday in New York, right before I had to go review the Pops at Carnegie Hall. It would have been perfect. But just as I was literally leaving my hotel room to get a cab to the Met, my cell phone rang. It was Ken Hunt, and Maestro was tired and begging off. We still had plenty of time until May.
So, we e-mailed back and forth, with a promise that I’d get the interview before Levine came to Cincinnati in May, probably by phone. Still nothing. Finally, a week before the May Festival, I got a call: Ken Hunt has decided that Maestro Levine will give a public press conference. Aren’t you happy?
I wasn’t happy, and almost decided to skip it. But, in the interest of news, I went anyway, knowing there would be TV, radio, my competition from the Post and a person who writes for several opera magazines. I sat in the front row, determined not to be overlooked if I raised my hand.
Luckily, I had asked about the format of the press conference. Would he make a statement only? Would we be allowed questions? The press person said, oh, it’s really a Q&A session.
Luckily I had questions prepared, and asked most of them, for close to an hour. Everyone else had expected him to just make a statement! He looked very healthy, spoke well and was cheerful. He walked a bit stiffly and at one point held up his hand to show his “tremor.” “I don’t have it today, you notice,” he said. There is some talk about his onset of Parkinson’s. He’s 61.
When we all got up to leave, I went to shake his hand and he remembered me and said, “You look beautiful!” I didn’t know what to say. I’ll bet you say that to all the divas?
I wrote the press conference story for the Local News section, and of course, had much more than would fit in the paper. So I wrote a longer version for online, in which he said some fascinating things. For instance, I asked, what are you thinking as the downbeat begins? And he confessed to having a little moment of terror, when you know everything that could go wrong. Once you start, it’s fine because, he said, you can do something about it.
The night after his May Festival concert (Berlioz’s Requiem), Levine and his sister and brother, Tom, an artist, hosted a birthday party for their 90-year-old mother, Helen, who happens to be a friend of mine. (I remember trekking through snow with her on the UC campus not long ago, to stuff envelopes for Friends of Women’s Studies…) They invited 120 mostly old friends to Helen’s favorite Chinese restaurant. It was a warm evening; luckily there was a tiny patio for cocktails. Levine arrived, badly dressed in a loose-fitting shirt and white socks with his black shoes (well, the invitation said casual) and held court on the patio while people lined up to greet him. Most of the remarks were, “I remember you when you were 10 and played with the symphony…”
I asked him how he thought the orchestra played (“Very well, considering how little time they had to prepare”) and what he thought of the hall. It is one of his three favorite halls in the world, and he said the sound onstage is very good. That is completely opposite to what the CSO musicians say! There is a plan now to redesign the hall, and move the orchestra out to the middle. Levine said he would worry about that, because an orchestra needs to be surrounded by wood. He said he would talk to Steven (Monder) about it, the executive director.
The biggest treat of the evening was the entertainment for his mom’s party. I was at a table near the family’s, seated next to Jennifer Conlon, wife of May Festival maestro James Conlon (he was on a plane to Texas to conduct the Van Cliburn Competition…) After dinner, Levine got up on a little stage that had a 9-foot grand in a corner, sat backwards on a chair and said, “As you all know, Helen is the best. And for the best, we decided to get the best.”
There was a gasp when Broadway legend Barbara Cook walked out with her piano player Michael Kosarin and bassist Peter Donovan, and proceeded to give her “tribute” show that she had just sung at the Café Carlyle in New York! Levine had flown them all in to do his mom’s party!!
Now 77, Cook was witty and wonderful, and she sang and chatted nonstop for an hour. What style she has! She talked about auditioning to sing “Candide” for Leonard Bernstein, and how he’d told her it took courage. But she won the role, and made the world premiere recording — and no doubt, many others. She paid tribute to her longtime friend, Bobby Short, and also to her accompanist who recently died, Wally Harper. Harper was also a composer and she did some of his songs, such as “Another Mister Right Left.”
The songs she chose had amazing lyrics and she sang them all like she was conversing one-on-one with every person in the room. She did some songs from the show “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” and some beautiful ballads, like “Make the Man Love Me” and a Gershwin tune that I never knew existed. I was sitting right next to her “stage,” and later got to shake her hand.
They brought out Graeter’s cakes for each table, and we all went home. It was close to midnight. So that was the Levine weekend! Helen, who looks about 70, was beaming.