James Levine was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, to a musical family: his maternal grandfather was a cantor in a synagogue, his father was a violinist who led a dance band, and his mother was an actress. He began to play the piano as a small child. At the age of 10, he made his concert debut as soloist in Felix Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 2 at a youth concert of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.
Levine subsequently studied music with Walter Levin, first violinist in the LaSalle Quartet. In 1956 he took piano lessons with Rudolf Serkin at the Marlboro Music School, Vermont. In the following year he began studies with Rosina Lhévinne at the Aspen Music School. After graduating from Walnut Hills High School, the acclaimed magnet school in Cincinnati, he entered the Juilliard School of Music in New York City in 1961, and took courses in conducting with Jean Morel. He graduated from the Juilliard School in 1964 and joined the American Conductors project connected with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
From 1964 to 1965, Levine served as an apprentice to George Szell with the Cleveland Orchestra, and then served as its assistant conductor until 1970. That year, he also made debuts as guest conductor with the Philadelphia Orchestra at its summer home at Robin Hood Dell, the Welsh National Opera, and the San Francisco Opera. In June 1971, he was called in at the last moment to substitute for István Kertész, to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Mahler's Second Symphony for the Ravinia Festival's opening concert of their thirty-sixth season. This concert began a long association with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and two years later, in 1973, he was appointed music director of the Ravinia Festival, succeeding the late Kertész. Levine held the position until 1993, and made numerous recordings with the orchestra, including the symphonies and German Requiem of Johannes Brahms, and major works of Gershwin, Holst, Berg, Beethoven, Mozart, and others. In 1990, at the request of Roy E. Disney, he arranged the music and conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in the soundtrack of Fantasia 2000, released by Walt Disney Pictures. From 1974 to 1978, Levine served as music director of the Cincinnati May Festival.
Levine made his Metropolitan Opera ('the Met') debut in June 1971, leading a June Festival performance of Tosca. Following further appearances with the company, he was named principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in February 1972. He became the Met's music director in 1976. In 1983, he served as conductor and musical director for the Franco Zeffirelli screen adaptation of La Traviata, which featured the Met orchestra and chorus members. He became the company's first artistic director in 1986, and relinquished the title in 2004.
During Levine's tenure, the Metropolitan Opera orchestra expanded its activities into the realms of recording, and separate concert series for the orchestra and chamber ensembles from The Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Levine has led the Metropolitan Opera on many domestic and international tours. For the 25th anniversary of his Met debut, Levine conducted the world premiere of John Harbison's The Great Gatsby, commissioned especially to mark the occasion. On his appointment as General Manager of the Met, Peter Gelb emphasized that James Levine was welcome to remain as long as he wanted to direct music there.
Following a series of injuries that began with a fall in Boston (see below), subsequent health problems with Levine led to his withdrawal from many Metropolitan Opera conducting engagements. Following a May 2011 performance of Die Walküre, Levine formally withdrew from all conducting engagements at the Metropolitan Opera. After two years of physical therapy, Levine returned to conducting with a May 2013 concert with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. On September 25, 2013, Levine conducted his first Metropolitan Opera performance since May 2011, in a revival production of Così fan tutte. Levine is scheduled to conduct three productions at the opera house and three concerts at Carnegie Hall in the 2013–14 season. On April 14, 2016, it was announced that Levine would be stepping down from his position as Music Director at the end of the 2015-2016 season. He will also assume the new title of Music Director Emeritus.
Levine first conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) in April 1972. In October 2001, Levine was named music director of the BSO, effective with the 2004–2005 season, with an initial contract of five years, becoming the first American-born conductor to head the BSO.
One unique condition that Levine negotiated was increased flexibility of the time allotted for rehearsal, allowing the orchestra additional time to prepare more challenging works. After the start of his tenure, the orchestra also established an "Artistic Initiative Fund" of about US$40 million to fund the more expensive of Levine's projects.
One criticism of Levine during his BSO tenure is that he did not attend many orchestra auditions. A 2005 article reported that Levine had attended two out of 16 auditions during his tenure up to that time. Levine himself has responded that he has the ability to provide input on musician tenure decisions after the initial probationary period, and that it is difficult to know how well a given player will fit the given position until that person has had a chance to work with the orchestra. He stated "My message is the audition isn't everything."
Another 2005 report stated that during Levine's first season as music director, the greater workload from the demands of playing more unfamiliar and contemporary music has increased physical stress with some of the BSO musicians. Levine and the players met to discuss this, and he agreed to program changes to lessen these demands. Levine has received general critical praise for revitalizing the orchestra's quality and repertoire since the beginning of his tenure.
Levine had been experiencing ongoing health problems, starting with an onstage fall in 2006 that resulted in a torn rotator cuff and started discussion of how much longer Levine's tenure with the BSO would be. In April 2010, in the wake of Levine's continuing health problems, it emerged that Levine had not officially signed a contract extension, so that Levine was the BSO's music director without a signed contract. On March 2, 2011, the BSO announced Levine's resignation as Music Director effective September 2011, after the Orchestra's Tanglewood season.
Working on a commission from Levine and the BSO, the composer John Harbison dedicated his Symphony No. 6 "in friendship and gratitude" to the conductor, whose premature departure from the orchestra prevented him from conducting the premiere.
Levine's Boston Symphony contract limited his guest appearances with American orchestras, but Levine has conducted regularly in Europe, with the Vienna Philharmonic (in 1989 and 1990, he recorded Mozart's first twenty symphonies with that orchestra), Berlin Philharmonic, and at the Bayreuth Festival. Levine has been a regular guest with the Philharmonia of London and the Staatskapelle Dresden. Beginning in 1975 he conducted regularly at the Salzburg Festival and the annual July Verbier Festival. From 1999 to 2004, he was chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic, and was credited with improving the quality of instrumental ensemble during his tenure.
Levine has initiated the Lindemann Young Artists Development Program at the Metropolitan Opera, a professional training program for graduated singers with, today, many famous alumni.
Levine was conductor of the UBS Verbier Festival Orchestra, the student resident orchestra at the annual summer music festival in Verbier, Switzerland, from 2000 through 2006. It was Levine's first long-term commitment to a student orchestra since becoming music director at the Met. After becoming Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Levine also served as Music Director of the Tanglewood Music Center, the BSO's acclaimed summer academy at Tanglewood for student instrumentalists, singers, composers, and conductors. There he conducted the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, directed fully staged opera performances with student singers, and gave master classes for singers and conductors.
Levine himself has said in interviews:
"At my age, you are naturally inclined towards teaching. You want to teach what you have learned to the next generation so that they don't have to spend time reinventing the wheel. I was lucky that I met the right mentors and teachers at the right moment. I love working with young musicians and singers, and those at the Tanglewood Music Center are unequivocally some of the finest and most talented in the world."
Conductors he has helped and influenced through his musical mentoring include Marco Armiliato, James Conlon John Keenan and Jens Georg Bachmann.
Levine has experienced recurrent health issues in recent years, including sciatica and what he has called "intermittent tremors". On March 1, 2006, Levine tripped and fell onstage during a standing ovation after a performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and tore the rotator cuff in his right shoulder, leaving the remaining subscription concerts in Boston to his assistant conductor at the time, Jens Georg Bachmann. Later that month, Levine underwent surgery to repair the injury. He returned to the podium on July 7, 2006, leading the BSO at Tanglewood.
Levine withdrew from the majority of the Tanglewood 2008 summer season, because of surgery required to remove a kidney with a malignant cyst. He returned to the podium in Boston on September 24, 2008, leading the BSO's season opening concert at Symphony Hall. On September 29, 2009, it was announced that Levine would undergo emergency back surgery for a herniated disk. He missed some three weeks of engagements, including a season opening performance at Carnegie Hall with the BSO, performances of Tosca at the Met, and regular BSO subscription concerts.
In March 2010, the BSO announced that Levine would miss the remainder of the Boston Symphony season because of back pain. The Metropolitan Opera also announced, on April 4, 2010, that Levine was withdrawing from the remainder of his scheduled performances for the season. According to the Met, Levine was required to have "corrective surgery for an ongoing lower back problem." Levine returned to conducting duties at the Met and the BSO at the beginning of the 2010–11 season, but in February 2011 he cancelled his Boston engagements for the rest of the season, including the Tanglewood summer festival.
In the summer of 2011, Levine underwent further surgery on his back. In September 2011, after falling and injuring his back while on vacation in Vermont, the Met announced that Levine would not conduct at the Met at least for the rest of 2011.
After two years of surgery and physical therapy, Levine returned to conducting for the first time on May 19, 2013, in a concert with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Levine conducted from a motorized wheelchair, with a special platform designed to accommodate the wheelchair. Levine finally returned to the Met on September 24, 2013, and took up his baton to conduct performances of Mozart's Così fan tutte. The same type of platform was present in the Metropolitan Opera orchestra pit for his September 2013 return performance.
Levine can be seen and heard in many audio and video recordings. Levine has recorded extensively with many orchestras and especially often with the Metropolitan Opera. His performance of Aïda with Leontyne Price, her last in opera, was preserved on video and may be seen at the Met's own online archive of performances. Of particular note are his performances of Wagner's complete Der Ring des Nibelungen. A studio recording made for Deutsche Grammophon in 1987–1989 can be found on compact disc and a 1989 live performance of the Ring is available on DVD.
He also appears on several dozen albums as a pianist, collaborating with such singers as Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, Christa Ludwig and Dawn Upshaw, as well as performing the chamber music of Franz Schubert and Francis Poulenc, among others.
Levine was featured in the animated Disney film Fantasia 2000. He conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the soundtrack recordings of all the music in the film (with the exception of one segment from the original 1940 Fantasia). Levine is also seen in the film talking briefly with Mickey Mouse, just as his predecessor Leopold Stokowski did in the original film.
Among the awards listed in his official biography are:1980 – Manhattan Cultural Award
1986 – Smetana Medal (presented by the former Czechoslovakia)
1984 – Named "Musician of the Year" by Musical America
1997 – National Medal of Arts
1999 – Wilhelm Furtwängler Prize from the Committee for Cultural Advancement of Baden-Baden , Germany
2003 – Kennedy Center Honors
2005 – Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts from the American Academy of Arts and Letters
2006 – Opera News Award
2009 – Award in the Vocal Arts from Bard College
2009 – Ditson Conductors Award from Columbia University
2010 – National Endowment for the Arts Opera Honoree
2010 – George Peabody Award from Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University
In addition, his biography says, Levine has received honorary doctorates the University of Cincinnati, the New England Conservatory of Music, Northwestern University, the State University of New York, and The Juilliard School.