On the late James Levine


The conductor and pianist James Levine died earlier this month, and yesterday’s obituary in the The New York Times is here. Levine was renowned, at least until he wasn’t. I was aware of the sexual assault allegations against Levine from as early as 1973, which surfaced in 2017, leading to the The Boston Globe to refer to him yesterday as “disgraced.”

However, the situation didn’t really pique my curiosity, perhaps because I’ve never tried to stay abreast of classical music even if I enjoy it very much. There’s only so much storage space. There were lawsuits and countersuits, and Levine seemed to be mounting somewhat of a comeback prior to his passing. We move on.

I have a friend who is a teacher and musician. Apparently the gravity of Levine’s past didn’t occur to my friend until he learned of the conductor’s death, at which time a feeling akin to shock set in.

There is a passage in the NYT obit that sticks with me. It seems the Globe had good reason to choose the specific word it did.

In March 2018 The Boston Globe published a long exposé of Mr. Levine’s years with this student ensemble in Cleveland, drawing on some two dozen interviews with former students and musicians, who described a cultlike atmosphere around Mr. Levine, even though he was not much older than they. The participants, who became known as “Levinites,” recalled belittlement by their mentor, loyalty tests and even group sex.

There can’t be an effective cult without the object of the proceedings encouraging the dependency. I’ll dip a toe quite tentatively into the water and suggest that it’s a relatively simple equation to adjudicate sexual abuse compared with unraveling the mystery of why so many people seem drawn to cults of personality, as in this instance, and willfully surrendering chunks of their own autonomy to be immersed in such a dysfunctional orbit.

Granted, cult leaders and serial abusers can be quite skillful in their manipulation, and hence I’m taking great care not to blame victims (even the 74 million Americans recently falling for a particular non-musical political abuser’s persistent grift).

I’d prefer blaming it on late period capitalism’s imperative to create pliable consumers, except that cults extend as far back into history as we have records.

I don’t have any answers, just more questions, and nothing to say to my friend that matters much. Ultimately, groping through a pea soup fog might be the entire point of the exercise. A fellow did wonderful things, and also horrible things. Making sense of it must emanate from an ethical anchor somewhere within ourselves — and self-knowledge is the hardest performance of all.

Photo credit: The Boston Globe.