Obituary: Conductor James Levine Dies at 77

By Francisco Salazar

Conductor James Levine died on March 9, 2021 at the age of 77 in Palm Springs, California.

The death was confirmed by his physician Dr. Len Horovitz and according to Riverside County’s Department of Public Health the cause of James Levine’s death was cardiopulmonary arrest, with Parkinson’s disease as a contributing factor.

The maestro was best known for the four decades that he spent at the head of the Metropolitan Opera, leading major artistic reform within the organization. However, his career came to an abrupt end in 2017 when he was investigated for accusations by several men of sexual misconduct.

Levine was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, to a musical family and began to play the piano as a small child. At the age of 10, Levine made his concert debut as a soloist playing Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

He went on to study with Walter Levin and Rudolf Serkin as well as Rosina Lhévinne. Levine attended the Juilliard School of Music in New York City and graduated in 1964. He later joined the American Conductors project connected with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

In his early career, he would serve as an apprentice to George Szell and in 1970 made his debut as guest conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He would have his big break in 1971 when he substituted for István Kertész and led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Mahler’s Second Symphony. It would be the start of a relationship with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and with the Ravinia Festival where he was music director.

That same year he would make his Metropolitan Opera debut at the age of 28. On June 5 he led “Tosca” and in 1972 was named principal conductor.

In 1975 he became the music director and in 1986 became the company’s first artistic director until 2004. With the Metropolitan Opera, he went on to conduct several Met premieres as well as new productions including the world premiere of John Harbison’s “The Great Gatsby.” He also expanded the companies activities including recordings, concert series at Carnegie Hall, and international tours. He was also credited for the formation of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Program.

Following the end of his tenure as Music Director, he assumed the new title of Music Director Emeritus until Dec. 2017. He would conduct more than 2500 performances with the company.

Levine also held a renowned relationship with the Boston Symphony Orchestra which he first conducted in April 1972. In 2001, he was named its music director effective with the 2004-05 season and would remain with the orchestra until 2011.

Levine also conducted in Europe performing with the Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, and at the Bayreuth Festival as well as the Verbier and Salzburg Festivals. He also led the Staatskapelle Berline and the Munich Philharmonic, where he served as music director for five years (1999-2004).

In December 2017 news broke that Levine had been accused of sexual misconduct with several men, including some when they were minors. The Met and Ravinia Festival suspended his activity and later fired the conductor. Following his dismissal, Levine filed a lawsuit in which the Met was forced to settle for $3.5 million.

Despite the allegations of sexual harassment and abuse, Levine was expected to return to the stage in 2021 at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and with the Orchestra di Santa Cecilia.

Levine left a notable recording legacy including complete operas on audio and video with the Metropolitan Opera.

The conductor was married to Suzanne Thomson, his assistant and living companion from the early 1970s.