The gifted conductor who had wielded immense influence in the classical music world, was publicly accused by nine men of sexual abuse. He died March 9 at age 77 of natural causes.



Conductor and pianist James Levine has died at age 77. He died on March 9 of natural causes, though his death was just announced today. For decades, Levine was one of the most celebrated and influential people in the classical music world. But his career ended in disgrace after nine men publicly accused him of sexually abusing them as teenagers. He was fired from the Metropolitan Opera, where he conducted for more than 40 years. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas looks at Levine's complicated legacy.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: The Metropolitan Opera in New York was nicknamed The House That Jimmy Built.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

TSIOULCAS: Under Levine's leadership, the Met became one of the world's greatest orchestras, and he shaped the careers of countless singers on its stage.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

TSIOULCAS: Levine was hailed as a prodigy himself. He made his debut as a pianist, sowing (ph) with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at age 10. By the time he was 21, he was working with the Cleveland Orchestra as an assistant conductor and had created his own orchestra with students at the Cleveland Institute of Music. At age 27, he made his debut as a conductor at the Metropolitan Opera. He was named principal conductor there just two years later and then its music director.


TSIOULCAS: Outside of the Met, Levine had a thriving career leading the world's major orchestras, and he particularly championed the music of several contemporary composers, including Elliott Carter and John Harbison. From 2004 to 2011, he was the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra before poor physical health prompted his resignation. He continued to perform widely as a pianist, and he won 10 Grammys and was nominated for the award 37 times.

At the height of his career, Levine was known as a musician's musician, working with orchestras and singers on artistic subtleties, not putting on a show for an audience or the performers. That was intentional, as he told WHYY's Fresh Air in 2011.


JAMES LEVINE: In a rehearsal, you use everything, every persuasive thing at your disposal, to make the orchestra conscious of as many details of the conception as you can. But when the concert comes or the performance comes, the orchestra has to be empowered to function within this conception without having to check with the middleman.

TSIOULCAS: Late in Levine's career, troubling allegations that had been whispered about in classical music circles for many years suddenly became very public. Between December 2017 and March 2018, nine men made accusations published by The New York Post, The New York Times and The Boston Globe that Levine had sexually abused them when they were aspiring teenaged musicians. Levine denied the allegations, which spanned the 1960s to the 1980s. He gave his last-ever performance at the Met on the same day that the first accusations were published. The Met formally fired James Levine in March 2018, effectively ending his American career.

Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.