James Levine, Former Met Opera Maestro, Is Dead at 77

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From the beginning, his association with the Met seemed an ideal match of musician, art form and institution. A few weeks before turning 29, he made his debut in Puccini’s “Tosca” on June 5, 1971, a matinee for which he had had no stage rehearsals with the starry cast, headed by Grace Bumbry as Tosca and Franco Corelli as Cavaradossi. Reviewing the performance, Allen Hughes of The New York Times wrote that Mr. Levine “may be one of the Metropolitan’s best podium acquisitions in some time.”

In 1973, Mr. Levine was named the company’s principal conductor, the first person to hold that post. The next year, with the departure of Rafael Kubelik, who had a brief and uneasy tenure as music director, Mr. Levine took over that title and settled in for what turned out to be 2,552 performances — far more than any other conductor in its history — as well as the creation of an extensive catalog of recordings and videos, including some landmark Met productions. He confidently led both early Mozart and thorny Schoenberg, and he brought works like Berg’s “Wozzeck” from the outskirts to the center of the company’s repertory.

At 5 feet 10 inches, with a round face, unkempt curly mane and portly build, Mr. Levine did not cut the figure of a charismatic maestro. His father used to nudge him to lose weight, cut his hair and get contact lenses, but Mr. Levine balked.

“I said that I would make myself so much the opposite of the great profile that I will have the satisfaction of knowing that I’m engaged because I’m a musician, and not because the ladies are swooning in the first balcony,” he said in a 1983 Time magazine cover article. Indeed, Mr. Levine expanded the public’s perception of what a conductor should be and, through dozens of “Live From the Met” broadcasts on public television, became one of the most recognized classical musicians of his time, even sharing the screen with Mickey Mouse in Disney’s “Fantasia 2000.”

He was neither a podium acrobat like Leonard Bernstein nor a grim-faced technician like Szell. His movements were nimble but never attention-grabbing. He encouraged orchestra players to watch his face, which beamed with pleasure when things were going right and signaled an alert when called for. “Give me some eyes” was his frequent request.

Some critics said Mr. Levine’s work lacked an identifiable character. Though his interpretive approach, even in matters as basic as tempos, fluctuated markedly throughout his career, certain qualities were consistent. His performances were clearheaded, rhythmically incisive without being hard-driven, and cogently structured, while still allowing melodic lines ample room to breathe. Not surprisingly given his immersion in opera, he had a keen sense of drama that carried into his accounts of symphonic literature. Above all, Mr. Levine valued naturalness, with nothing sounding forced, whether a stormy outburst in a Wagner opera or a ruminative passage of a Mahler symphony.

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