Levine Celebration: A Breath of Fresh Air

Mitchell Weiss, associate clarinetist (retired)

Maestro James Levine is to be congratulated on a remarkable tenure as Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera. I remember many wonderful performances of operas both familiar and new to the repertoire that he conducted. He built the MET Orchestra into one of the finest ensembles in the world and made the Met one of the preeminent opera houses in the world. He deserves our sincere congratulations and thanks.

Herb Wekselblatt, principal tubist (retired)

I was a member of the MET Orchestra for 35 years, from 1961-1996, and know a little about James Levine that I would like to share with you. I had not heard anything about the new conductor who was scheduled to conduct the MET Orchestra. So, I asked a younger member of the orchestra if he knew anything about James Levine. His answer was an eye opener. He said, “I don’t know him personally, but I’ve heard that he has a strong following of friends who would kill for him." What a description of a young conductor recently out of Juilliard - 16 years younger than me!

Now, I had already played under Sir Thomas Beecham, Stokowski, Bernstein, and other top conductors, so I wondered what this kid could do. It didn't take long for our orchestra to find out. His conducting was very clear and his intensity and knowledge of the score was firmly in his mind and in his baton. He also seemed to be enjoying himself, and that made a strong impression on me. A young conductor lacking in arrogance was very special.

The orchestra was relaxed and, I believe, enjoying this new addition to the Met. So, when I was asked by a New York Times reporter what my first impression was of James Levine, I responded with the words, "He’s like a breath of fresh air.” - and he was!

Now, for a little known event some years later when we were on tour in Vienna, Austria. There happened to be a controversy in one of the German orchestras that involved the presence of women in the orchestra. Apparently, a female musician was rejected as a member of the orchestra because "up to that time there were no women in the orchestra.”

Levine, in his quiet way, decided to make a statement. To show that the artistic quality of the great MET Orchestra was only enhanced by the presence of women, he instructed all the women in the string section to move to the outside of their stand-position; that way, they could be seen more prominently by the audience. Bravo, Jimmy!