Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Don’t Put Away James Levine’s Recordings...Play Them

At 5:06 PM today, the esteemed New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini published an article in which he confessed his dismay at the allegations of sexual abuse made against Conductor James Levine of the Metropolitan Opera. In this article, Mr. Tommasini makes specific reference to a “handsome dark-wood case” he has in his apartment, which contains, among other things, “a two box set of performances from the Metropolitan Opera with James Levine conducting...” He intimates that, given the terrible news about James Levine, he’s now wrestling with whether that set of recordings ought still to have pride of place in his living room.

How can we begin to deal with the tragedy of the almost daily revelations we read in the news about the stories upon stories of sexual abuse, physical violence, molestation, predation. How do we deal with it? How do we understand it? How can we cope when, in some cases, a handful of these people have been our heroes?

We are talking about persons who have entertained us, who have informed us, who have enriched our lives...some in small ways and some in large...but who all possess a common streak of darkness that cuts through their minds and cuts through their souls. A darkness most of us cannot understand. A complex tangle of ego, sexual desire, hubris, and, dare I say it...of madness.

Anthony Tommasini wrestles with James Levine’s legacy as one of the preeminent conductors of our time or any time, and with the relentless drumbeat of the allegations against him. He recognizes Levine’s genius. He applauds his body of work, but bemoans the fact that during an interview he had with him a number of years ago he could not get Levine to open up about his private life...as if opening up would have served as some sort of confessional catharsis that would have made it all go away and somehow, in the clearer light of day, reveal to us more of the complexity of James Levine as he really is.

My respect for Mr. Tommasini is profound. He’s one of the few music critics whose writing I enjoy almost unreservedly. I do not know him, but the quality of his writing and the perceptiveness of his understanding of musicians, what they do, and how they translate notes on the printed page to what reverberates in our ears and enriches our lives has always struck me as a singular gift.

But in the matter of James Levine, and in the matter of what to do with that two boxed set of recordings commemorating the 40th anniversary of Mr. Levine’s Met debut, I find myself completely at odds with Mr. Tommasini. I believe that he could not be more wrong in what he has written, the way he has written it, and in the conclusions he has come to. All of which seems to me to be the saddest betrayal of all. I’ll let you read the article itself and of course come to your own conclusions.

Mr. Tommasini is, in my view, wrong to have expected Mr. Levine to have been anything but circumspect about his personal life during an interview they had in 1998. We all have a right to be circumspect about our personal lives. No amount of opening up to a curious critic, even one as insightful as Mr. Tommasini, is required. We have a right to our privacy, and we have a right not to have to be transparent at every moment of every day and in every conceivable way. No one has a right to force things out of people for their own personal reasons and in the service of their own agendas.

The saddest part of Mr. Tommasini’s article is that he appears to be wrestling with where that commemorative two boxed set of James Levine’s Met recordings should go, now that these terrible accusations have been made. Should it moved out of his living room, away from its place of honor to someplace else less visible? Should it be given away? The implied question in all of this is should any of this music conducted by Mr. Levine now be played at all? Is the playing of one of these recordings an act in itself of betrayal? Does it somehow diminish the terrible ordeals suffered by the young musicians who Mr. Levine is alleged to have abused and molested?

Everything that I have read about James Levine in the past two days sickens me, saddens me, and fills me with apprehension for the future. But make no mistake: James Levine is a singular genius. He is not only one of the great conductors in the history of classical music, he is quite simply the finest conductor of opera who has ever lived. What he has done for music, for musicians, and for the furtherance of our great Western tradition cannot be disputed.

That he has now been revealed as a man with a deep unfathomable darkness in his soul is tragic and horrific to contemplate. But let us not make another mistake: James Levine is a human being, and the great depth of perception and understanding that he has brought to the performance of music betrays his humanness while it exalts our own. We may not want to hear this right now. So it’s okay if you want to stop reading.

However, for those of you willing to stick with me for a few more sentences, I say to Anthony Tommasini, and I say to you all, do not put away your recordings by James Levine. Listen to them, preferably tonight if possible. Celebrate these performances of unmistakable genius, and remember as you do it that one of the great lessons of art, and of music...that most approachable of the arts...is to remind us of our humanity. As we listen to this music and as we reflect, with great sadness on the fate of these young men who have suffered, let us also reflect on James Levine’s suffering. I cannot imagine what his life must be like as he now must privately deal with demons most probably beyond his wildest imaginings.

However, let us listen to the music he made, and let that music speak to us, as only music can. Let us not listen to it because we wish to forget about what Mr. Levine did or the harm he caused or the immeasurable hurt suffered by those young men. Let James Levine’s recordings reveal to us another message: no man could have made a career by so consistently elevating our experience of life as did James Levine, and not have, at least, a kernel of humanity in him. Listening to James Levine’s recordings will not absolve him of his crimes; neither will it make us complicit in them. All it should do is remind us, for a few brief needed moments, of our flawed but common humanity.


- Michael Maglaras