For decades, Americans have suffered an inferiority complex when it comes to classical music, in particular regarding conductors of classical music. Yes! There was Leonard Bernstein and his legend still casts a mighty and important shadow, both nationally and internationally. But take a look at where American orchestras shop for their conductors. It's mostly in the international marketplace, especially in Europe. Fritz Reiner, George Szell, Bruno Walter, Arturo Toscanini, Sir Georg Solti, they all played mighty roles in building our American musical institutions into polished voices of classical music. Look around today, and you still find mostly Europeans conducting the important American orchestras. One of the most anticipated (and surprising) recent appointments was the naming of Riccardo Muti as the new maestro of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
For over 40 years there has been an important American conductor at work, and doing most of his important conducting here in his home country. James Levine has done it quietly, at times with little fanfare, but never disappointing with his final, well-crafted product. And for much of that time, James Levine has headed what some would regard as the premier American musical institution, The Metropolitan Opera. So why has such a career gone largely unheralded? Maybe we have to go back to the sad fact of the myth of the European conductor, that only Europeans can play the role of podium star.
James Levine turns 65 this weekend. While many might look to retirement at this age, the Maestro of the Met is continuing full speed ahead, giving much of his current attention to his Directorship of the Boston Symphony. Over the next couple of weeks, the KPAC Basic Library will play Happy Birthday for Maestro Levine by presenting an overview of why this American musician succeeds in a Eurocentric arena. Levine is the complete package of extraordinary musical abilities. He is a conductor, a pianist, an accompanist, and a seer. Tune in for James Levine and the Met, James Levine and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, James Levine in Boston and James Levine, the pianist, at Carnegie Hall and at Chicago's Ravinia Festival. And still we won't make a dent in the extensive James Levine discography. It's a two-week long birthday bash, with James Levine on the KPAC Basic Library, Saturday evening at 5:30.
James Baker, KPAC host