James Levine is the BSO’s 14th music director since the orchestra’s founding in 1881 and the first American-born conductor to hold that position.
Highlights of Maestro Levine’s 2008-09 BSO programs (three of which again go to Carnegie Hall) included an Opening Night all-Russian program; the world premieres of BSO 125th anniversary commissions by Leon Kirchner and Gunther Schuller and of a new work for piano and orchestra by Elliott Carter (the latter to be introduced in Boston, then repeated at Carnegie Hall on the composer’s 100th birthday in December); Brahms’s German Requiem; Mahler’s Symphony No. 6; concert performances of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra; a three-program survey of Mozart symphonies (concluding with the last three symphonies in a single program); and additional works by Beethoven, Berlioz, Boulez, Brahms, Carter, Messiaen, Mozart, Schubert (the F minor Fantasie for piano four-hands, with Daniel Barenboim), Schumann, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky. At Tanglewood in 2008, Mr. Levine led Berlioz’s Les Troyens with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, and was Festival Director for Tanglewood’s 2008 Festival of Contemporary Music, the Elliott Carter Centenary Celebration marking the composer’s 100th-birthday year. Following the 2007 Tanglewood season, James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra made their first European tour together, performing in the Lucerne Festival, the Schleswig-Holstein Festival (in Hamburg), Essen, Düsseldorf, the Berlin Festival, Paris, and the BBC Proms in London. Maestro Levine made his BSO debut in April 1972 and became music director in the fall of 2004, having been named music director designate in October 2001. His wide-ranging programs balance orchestral, operatic, and choral classics with significant music of the 20th and 21st centuries, including newly commissioned works from such leading American composers as Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, John Harbison, Leon Kirchner, Peter Lieberson, Gunther Schuller, and Charles Wuorinen.
James Levine is also Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera, where, in the thirty-seven years since his debut there, he has developed a relationship with that company unparalleled in its history and unique in the musical world today. All told at the Met he has led nearly 2,500 performances—more than any other conductor in the company’s history—of 83 different operas, including fifteen company premieres. In 2008-09 Maestro Levine lead the Opening Night gala featuring Renée Fleming; a free performance of Verdi’s Requiem marking the first anniversary of Luciano Pavarotti’s death; a 125th Anniversary Gala (also celebrating the 40th anniversary of Plácido Domingo’s Met debut) featuring recreations of scenes from historic Met productions; the final revival of Wagner’s Ring cycle in Otto Schenk’s production; a new Robert Lepage production of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust; and a revival of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice in Mark Morris’s production, as well as concerts at Carnegie Hall with the MET Orchestra and MET Chamber Ensemble. Also in New York this season he conducts Charles Wuorinen’s Ashberyana in a 70th-birthday-year celebration for that composer at the Guggenheim Museum in November, and leads a master class for the Marilyn Horne Foundation at Zankel Hall in January.
Outside the United States, Mr. Levine’s activities are characterized by his intensive and enduring relationships with Europe’s most distinguished musical organizations, especially the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the summer festivals in Salzburg (1975-1993) and Bayreuth (1982-98). He was music director of the UBS Verbier Festival Orchestra from its founding in 2000 and, before coming to Boston, was chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic from 1999 to 2004. In the United States he led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for twenty summers as music director of the Ravinia Festival (1973-1993) and, concurrently, was music director of the Cincinnati May Festival (1973-1978). Besides his many recordings with the Metropolitan Opera and the MET Orchestra, he has amassed a substantial discography with such leading ensembles as the Berlin Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, London Symphony, Philharmonia Orchestra, Munich Philharmonic, Dresden Staatskapelle, Philadelphia Orchestra, and Vienna Philharmonic. Over the last thirty years he has made more than 200 recordings of works ranging from Bach to Babbitt. Maestro Levine is also active as a pianist, performing chamber music and collaborating with many of the world’s great singers.
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on June 23, 1943, James Levine studied piano from age four and made his debut with the Cincinnati Symphony at ten, as soloist in Mendelssohn’s D minor piano concerto. He was a participant at the Marlboro Festival in 1956 (including piano study with Rudolf Serkin) and at the Aspen Music Festival and School (where he would later teach and conduct) from 1957. In 1961 he entered the Juilliard School, where he studied conducting with Jean Morel and piano with Rosina Lhévinne (continuing on his work with her at Aspen). In 1964 he took part in the Ford Foundation-sponsored “American Conductors Project” with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Alfred Wallenstein, Max Rudolf, and Fausto Cleva. As a direct result of his work there, he was invited by George Szell, who was on the jury, to become an assistant conductor (1964-1970) at the Cleveland Orchestra—at twenty-one, the youngest assistant conductor in that orchestra’s history. During his Cleveland years, he also founded and was music director of the University Circle Orchestra at the Cleveland Institute of Music (1966-72).
James Levine was the first recipient (in 1980) of the annual Manhattan Cultural Award and in 1986 was presented with the Smetana Medal by the Czechoslovak government, following performances of the composer’s Má Vlast in Vienna. He was the subject of a Time cover story in 1983, was named “Musician of the Year” by Musical America in 1984, and has been featured in a documentary in PBS’s “American Masters” series. He holds numerous honorary doctorates and other international awards. In recent years Mr. Levine has received the Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Arts from New York’s Third Street Music School Settlement; the Gold Medal for Service to Humanity from the National Institute of Social Sciences; the Lotus Award (“for inspiration to young musicians”) from Young Concert Artists; the Anton Seidl Award from the Wagner Society of New York; the Wilhelm Furtwängler Prize from Baden-Baden’s Committee for Cultural Advancement; the George Jellinek Award from WQXR in New York; the Goldenes Ehrenzeichen from the cities of Vienna and Salzburg; the Crystal Award from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland; America’s National Medal of Arts and Kennedy Center Honors; the 2005 Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; and a 2006 Opera News Award. In October 2008 he receives the newly created NEA Opera Honor from the National Academy of the Arts.