Dialogues and Discoveries: James Levine: His Life and His Music

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9780684831596: Dialogues and Discoveries: James Levine: His Life and His Music
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Tells the story of Levine's life in music, from child prodigy to international celebrity as artistic director and principal conductor of the Metropolitian Opera

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About the Author:

Robert C. Marsh was chief music critic of the Chicago Sun-Times for thirty-seven years. He has been a regular contributor to High Fidelity and Saturday Review and received a Peabody Award for educational broadcasting. His books include a life of Arturo Toscanini (the only biography of the maestro to appear during his lifetime), histories of the Cleveland Orchestra and the Ravinia Festival, and a study of Bertrand Russell.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Part One: Life
Chapter One

James Levine comes from Cincinnati, Ohio. He is the kind of person one might expect from a city that combines a rich European cultural legacy with an influential role in the growth of the nation. These things come together in a remarkable counterpoint of values, ideas, and events that shaped the world in which he lived into early manhood.

Levine is not especially interested in family history. He sees himself as an American, and although he is aware of his roots to central Europe, his family was thoroughly Americanized in the nineteenth century. In his household there was never talk of the old country. He was an Ohio boy, a Buckeye, enriched by the life of the city in which he lived. But in a very real way he symbolizes the fulfillment of the aspirations that brought his ancestors to the United States.

Levine was not born in a city that was striving to develop musical culture. On the contrary, its musical achievements already rivaled many a city in the East. The rivers were the great natural highways of the young American republic, and Cincinnati was a river town. It was closely bound to the Atlantic seaboard. Never was this more forcefully asserted than in 1851, when Jenny Lind, the most powerful musical symbol to be lured from Europe in the early nineteenth century, sang there. She arrived in a comfortable steamboat on the broad Ohio. Chicago, which had no direct rail link to the East until later in the decade, never heard her voice, nor did Cleveland, Cincinnati's rival in northern Ohio.

Secure on its seven hills, Cincinnati fancied itself a little Rome where patrician tastes might be cultivated. It was settled in 1788 and was the first capital of the Northwest Territory. By 1840, before the flood of immigration that was to change its character, it was already the sixth largest city in the nation.

It was first a river town and then a German town. Germans had been an important part of life in the United States from the beginning, but their numbers increased with the influx of Forty-Eighters, liberal thinkers of all social classes who had left Europe after revolutionary efforts at reform failed. In 1850 half the population of Cincinnati was European-born and 30 percent of the citizenry was German. A German-Swiss choral society, with an annual Sängerfest, had grown to two thousand members by 1870.

The end of the Civil War in 1865 created a mood of jubilation in which music thrived. The arrival of Theodore Thomas and his touring New York orchestra in 1869 proved a monumental inspiration. Four years later, with Thomas's support, the first May Festival of choral music was heard. A century later James Levine would become its conductor.

During the Sängerfest, beer flowed as freely as melody. There was, in fact, a Bierstube conveniently located under the stage. Thomas would have none of that, and the serious character of the event was firmly defined. So great was its success that it needed a suitable home, and Cincinnati's Music Hall, still an attractive center for the arts in the city, was ready for the third May Festival in 1878, the year in which the city opened the Cincinnati College of Music.

A small symphonic ensemble was established in 1872. Under the leadership of the wife of a future president, Mrs. William Howard Taft, it gave way to the existing Cincinnati Symphony in 1895. The symphony had an American conductor, Frank Van der Stucken. He was (his name notwithstanding) a Texan educated in Europe -- the first American-born conductor of an American symphony orchestra. In 1909 the orchestra went, for three years, to the twenty-seven-year-old Leopold Stokowski, who called for the construction of a music shell that in 1920 became the basis of the city's unique Zoo Opera. In 1922 Fritz Reiner began nine years as conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony. James Levine grew up in a city where Stokowski and Reiner were legendary figures, never suspecting that in Chicago he would someday inherit Reiner's greatest orchestra or record the soundtrack for the sequel to a history-making Stokowski film.

In the years following the Civil War, the expanding city attracted, in addition to Germans, immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Among them were one of James Levine's great-grandparents. The conductor's maternal great-grandfather, Morris Goldstein, born in 1840 in a small city south of Budapest, had been a cantor in the synagogue there. He came to America in 1869 with a shipload of cantors looking for opportunities in the young nation. He found a place in Cincinnati, where he married an American-born woman of German descent. In addition to his music he was a painter of stature. His portrait of Isaac Mayer Wise, founder of Reform Judaism in the United States, is in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Their son married a woman whose parents were born in Germany.

On the paternal side of the family were great-grandparents born in Latvia and Germany and a second couple born in Cincinnati of European ancestry. Helen Levine, James's mother, is uncertain of the national origin of the families already settled in Cincinnati or the date of their immigration. All of James's grandparents, however, were born in the United States in a geographical range from Albany, New York, to Appleton, Wisconsin.

It is not unusual that Levine and two of his most significant teachers should bear a name with the same root. The Levines are Levites, members of the tribe of Levi, the priestly caste in Israel who bore the Ark of the Covenant and made music in the Temple. The pronunciation of Levi traditionally determined the family name.

James Levine is the son of a conductor, but not a conductor of the repertory he represents. In the big band era of the 1930s, visitors to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles danced to the music of Larry Lee, who as a bandleader and crooner (School of Bing Crosby) was a successful purveyor of the popular music of the day. When many of the good sidemen were called into service after the United States went to war in 1941, the twenty-eight-year-old bandleader turned back into Larry (Lawrence) Levine and returned to his birthplace, Cincinnati, to join his father in the clothing business and to start a family, with his wife, whom he had married two years earlier. A scar on one lung made him ineligible for military duty.

No one called him Lawrence, just as his son James was always Jim in the household. While Larry Levine's children were growing up, he spent considerable time on the road, but the family bonds remained close. He was perfectly suited to be a salesman, and the success of the family business owed much to these skills. One of the immediate impressions on meeting him, even after his sons and daughter were grown, was his dedication and complete loyalty to his children. He followed their lives as avidly as any stage mother, especially after his retirement in 1961. He died in 1994.

Helen Levine, a lively, charming octogenarian, was born Helen Goldstein in Chicago in 1915. Her acting career (as Helen Golden) began in New York at the Neighborhood Playhouse. "My great success," she recalls, "was at the Lyceum Theater on Forty-fifth Street. The show opened in 1937. It was a play by Arthur Kober called Having Wonderful Time. I started out in a bit part and after several months was promoted to the leading part. I felt like the heroine of Forty-second Street. My leading man was John Garfield. I knew him, since we had been at the Neighborhood Playhouse together.

"I first met Larry Levine under the clock at the New Yorker Hotel on May 4, 1939. We knocked each other's socks off the night we met. It was love at first sight. We were married six months later. The fourth time I saw him was at our wedding."

When James Lawrence Levine was

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