When two objects collide, the strength of one impacts the trajectory of the other, sending it flying with uncertain purpose and lifetime. That is how I would describe the effect Jim Levine had on my musical destiny when I first met him in the summer of 1967 at the Meadowbrook Orchestral Institute.
My subsequent three years of gold-standard training at the Cleveland Institute reinforced key professional orchestral skills: constant emphasis of the musical gesture; character in tempo; maintaining tempo by learning from a score and listening beyond the music in front of me; a rich vocabulary in articulation based on the stylistic individuality of each composer; and most important the vocal line in any given phrase. Jim also understood learning by example to be a powerful fuel, so he brought members of the Cleveland Orchestra, where he was the assistant conductor, to sit among us, to bolster our courage, and show us through aural technicolor the execution expected of us. This type of education fed off the artistic altitude of players from one of the finest orchestras at that time, and would later shape how I would teach during my years at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University — sitting in among the students and turning up the professional heat.
Singers and opera constituted other keys to my Levine education, and I’m not talking about student productions. They included concert performances of Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, Simon Boccanegra, Don Carlos, Magic Flute and Fidelio with casts including legendary singers like Richard Tucker, Cornel MacNeil, Renata Tebaldi, Gabriela Tucci, Ezio Flagello, Ramon Vinay, Seth McCoy, Marion Lippert, Donald Gramm and Benita Valenti. These Mount Everest performers stood close to my chair…artists whose craft and dramatic strengths, like those of the Cleveland Orchestra members sitting nearby, posed as colossal role models. Any conservatory student who was paying attention would feed off of them and grow tremendously! Observing Jim’s understanding of how singers had to carry the vocal line with an unbroken legato while sculpting the words and drama of the moment, thank you very much, was my first encounter with how the ear can carry over the natural properties of a first-rate trained voice to one’s own playing, thereby amplifying an orchestral singing style, which not many years later Jim would hone into the magnificent sound of the Met’s Orchestra.
A special two-hour class called Style and Interpretation that, among many areas of learning score study, opened a miraculous new world to the big Schubert song cycles and truly iced the artistic cake. Never before had I experienced, nor would I likely have experienced on my own, this genre of intimate, tender storytelling where the emotional canvas was so expertly written in the two hands at the keyboard giving way to words that were held in its grip … from brightness to the darkest despair. Confronted with music of this depth felt overpowering at ages 17 to 20. These experiences deeply imprinted, and years later I would seek out other song cycles and turn to when my life dished out loss and the need for solace.
I must add that I never saw much of his public persona in the last 20 years. I’m frozen in a time when his fire as an educator/coach/conductor could easily move from students to Cleveland Orchestra players to opera legends he would guide deftly and sensitively through roles they’d sung countless times. The point of my focusing exclusively on the significance of Jim the teacher is to separate out the fact that he had a phenomenal musical mind that in this period, pre-Met, he was using to carry me and other young musicians like me on a tidal wave of self-preparation for what was to follow for him when he left Cleveland for the Met. Being within this rarefied laboratory placed me on the receiving end of the best of what he had to offer. As I look back, my Levine education implanted an essential compass that has been my guide to this day: the composer is all, tells all. Pay attention! For this I will be forever grateful.