James Levine was among America’s most acclaimed and successful orchestra conductors. He was the music director of the Metropolitan Opera, conducting 2,552 performances from 1976 to 2016, when he was felled by the ravages of Parkinson’s disease. He also directed the Munich Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and was the winner of eight Grammy Awards and the 1997 National Medal of Arts.
On December 3, 2017, he was suspended by the New York Metropolitan Opera and later by the Boston Symphony Orchestra for “sexually abusive and harassing conduct” with young musicians under his tutelage more than 40 years earlier, which he denied. The late years of his career were also limited because of multiple back and spinal surgeries, his Parkinson’s disease and several falls. On March 9, 2021 he died in his Palm Springs home, and his personal physician announced that he died of natural causes, which does not really tell you anything about what caused his death.
Levine was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, to a violinist father and a mother who was an actress on Broadway and the daughter of a composer and cantor in a synagogue. At age three, Levine’s parents took him to a doctor because he spoke with a stutter. His parents told the doctor that he could sing a tune without stuttering and that whenever he walked by the family piano, he would reach up and play the keys. The doctor suggested that he be treated with piano lessons. The treatment worked and by age nine, he was performing operas in his toy puppet playhouse. At age 10, he was featured as the soloist in Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. At age 13, he took piano lessons with Rudolf Serkin at the Marlboro Music School in Vermont.
A Distinguished Professional Career
At age 21 in 1964, Levine received his degree from the Julliard School in New York, and was hired as an assistant to George Szell, the demanding Hungarian-born conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra. At age 22, Levine taught at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and took lessons from Walter Levin, the first violinist in the LaSalle Quartet. At age 27, he was guest conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Welsh National Opera, and the San Francisco Opera. At age 28, he was called in as an emergency substitute for István Kertész at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and he conducted “Tosca” in his Metropolitan Opera debut and was appointed Principal Conductor the following year. He also conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where he was named Music Director in 2001 and became the BSO’s first American-born conductor. He was in great demand in Europe, where he appeared with the Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, the Philharmonia of London, the Staatskapelle Dresden, the Salzburg Festival, the annual July Verbier Festival, the Munich Philharmonic and others. By age 52 in 2005, he was the highest paid conductor in North America, with a salary from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Met of more than $3.5 million per year. In December 2017, the Met suspended Levine for allegations that forty years earlier he had sexually abused four young men. Levine sued the Met in New York State Supreme Court for breach of contract and defamation, and they settled for $3.5 million in 2019.
Levine suffered recurrent health problems from age 63 onward, including severe back pain caused by a pinched sciatic nerve, and Parkinson’s disease. On March 1, 2006, he tripped and fell on stage while receiving a standing ovation at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He tore his right shoulder rotator cuff and had to have his muscles repaired surgically. At age 65, he had surgery to remove a cancerous kidney and at age 66, he missed three weeks of concerts for emergency back surgery for a herniated disk. The surgery was not successful so he missed the entire season of 2018 with the Metropolitan Opera and Boston Symphony Orchestra. He tried to return to conducting, but at age 68, he fell down a flight of stairs and fractured his spine while on vacation in Vermont. In 2013, at age 70, he conducted the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at Carnegie Hall from a motorized wheelchair.
The Importance of Staying Active
In earlier reports, I have noted that many conductors have lived exceptionally long lives, probably due to the constant arm exercise required by their jobs. Unfortunately, this was not the case with Levine. During his last years, Levine missed many scheduled concerts because of his multiple back and spinal surgeries, Parkinson’s disease and broken bones from falling. He spent most of his last years in bed or in a wheelchair because of his uncontrollable shaking, lack of coordination, back pain and broken bones. Lack of activity weakens the skeletal muscles which in turn markedly weaken the heart muscle which can send a person into heart failure. Levine also had massive abdominal obesity, which means he probably had unannounced diabetes that can cause heart failure. He died on March 9, 2021, and his personal physician said that he died of natural causes. It is most likely that he died of heart failure, which is usually the actual cause of death in obituaries that list “natural causes.”
Lessons from Levine’s Miserable Last Years
Try to stay as active as you can throughout your entire life, and maintain a healthful weight. Each day that you spend not moving your muscles weakens your heart until eventually you can die of heart failure. Exercise will prolong your life, and it helps if your job or favorite pastimes involve lots of movement. You do not have to have a specific exercise program; you just need to keep on moving for a large part of each day. It is harmful just to sit or lie down all day long. It is healthful to mow your lawn, wash your dishes, make your bed, vacuum your house, go for a walk, and participate with your friends in activities in which you are moving your arms and legs — dancing, cycling, swimming, running, nature walks and so forth.
James Lawrence Levine
June 23, 1943 – March 9, 2021