The First, Failed Investigation into James Levine

By · Additional reporting · Title Image A. Currell (CC BY-NC 2.0) · Date 3/8/2018

Norman Lebrecht’s book Who Killed Classical Music was published in 1996, and contained an infamous anecdote about a conductor, named under a pseudonym, abusing children. The culprit was widely rumored to be James Levine. (In a recent groundbreaking investigation, Malcolm Gay and Kay Lazar of the Boston Globe confirmed a similar incident to the one in the book.) According to a contemporaneous report in FOCUS, a German magazine, it was through Lebrecht’s book that rumors about Levine’s alleged criminal past entered the political sphere and attached themselves to his name for the first time in the public record. It would be another 20 years before his victims finally came forward.

It was November 1997. Sergiu Celibidache, the legendary conductor of the Munich Philharmonic, had died in August 1996. The orchestra—now the employer of a friend of Vladimir Putin’s, Valery Gergiev—was looking for someone of a similar stature to hire as their new music director. That position is public, meaning that the City Council in Munich decides whom to hire, with input from the orchestra. The Philharmonic had its heart set on Levine and leaked its intentions before the final decision had been made. “The fact that the orchestra hurried to go public with this significantly weakened the city’s negotiating position,” one politician said in a secret City Council meeting, the protocol of which VAN obtained through a public records request. “It made the City Council’s decision exceptionally difficult….After this name had been named, it was more or less impossible to even mention other candidates.”

The protocol of that meeting, on November 20, 1997, sheds light on the complex legal and moral position the Munich politicians of the time found themselves in. Many societal assumptions about sexual assault have since changed; we are still wrestling with many of the same gray areas today.

Photo © JAMES MEYER/ COLUMBIA ARTISTS
Photo © JAMES MEYER/ COLUMBIA ARTISTS

A then-Green Party member was the one to bring classical music’s open secret about Levine into the public discussion. (By German law, VAN is forbidden from attaching names to quotes from secret Council meetings.) She had no hard facts, but emphasized the persistence of the rumors about the conductor’s alleged crimes. (Several of her party members disagreed with her for mentioning them formally at all.) “Since the beginning of this debate, there have been rumors, and not just a few anonymous letters from dark corners,” she said. “It’s not like there have been a few rumors whose sources had some kind of ascertainable motives. They are very widely known.”

This party member continued by saying that she wasn’t interested in merely talking about Levine’s sexuality. She was worried that he was guilty of sexual assault against a child, “the second-worst crime to murder,” as another politician put it. She summarized the Council’s predicament neatly: “There are two possibilities. Either you don’t engage with the rumors at all, or you investigate them. [The Greens] believe they should be investigated.” This perspective sits well with our current knowledge about sexual assault: that victims rarely lie, and widespread rumors almost always contain some truth. The Greens, and that politician personally, were viciously attacked in the press. “Disgusting gossip,” wrote FOCUS. Die Zeit added that “a conductor has never been offered a renowned music directorship in a more embarrassing way.” With hindsight, of course, we know that the Green Party politician was right; her “embarrassing” approach was, in fact, prescient. At the time, some politicians seemed more concerned about the way Munich would be perceived abroad than about the children.

In the protocol, two different approaches to the issue of James Levine’s alleged crimes emerge. One is deserving of condemnation: the idea that classical music is somehow superior, that in talking about it one could never stoop to the level of gossip. One politician declined to even read the Green Party member’s concerns aloud in the (secret) meeting, saying, “The whole thing is so incredibly slimy and incomprehensible.” Another added, “The City Council of Munich isn’t talking about the Philharmonic, about the music, about conductors and programs. Instead it’s talking about disgusting crimes, and no one has even pretended these accusations belong here.” Yet the cardinal sin of the classical music industry in cases like these has always been to talk about the music.

Photo Michela Simoncini (CC BY 2.0)
Photo Michela Simoncini (CC BY 2.0)

Another politician reminded the Green politician, correctly, that Levine would have to enjoy the presumption of innocence. “If we were dealing with a proven crime, then that would matter to me,” he said. “Then I wouldn’t say, It’s like Michael Jackson, that’s just the way things are. I’d say, a representative of the cultural life of the city of Munich has no business being tied up in this kind of guilt, no matter how much of a genius he is.” A gay member of the council added, also correctly, that smears about pedophilia were a tried-and-true tactic to discredit gay men in public life. “If I imagine that someone would try to pin these rumors on to me; I’d be in a vicious circle of rumors…I’d be dead, politically and publicly.” As Ben Miller has written in VAN, “I fear sex panic and its consequences. Levine cynically played to these fears in interviews, begging for privacy, claiming that he was being ‘good.’” In this case, too, his strategy worked. When the Green politician had finished her call for investigation, a rival responded by saying that her last few minutes speaking “were the downfall of democracy!” The protocol notes that the crowd applauded.

In the end, no one had the facts, because, without victim testimony, they were not yet out there to be found. One Green Party politician attempted to legitimized the rumors by saying that they “came from people who I didn’t expect to say these things.” A politician on the opposing side said that “in all my loyal cooperation with government agencies, press agencies, and correspondents abroad, I have not come across even the scent of an accusation.” No one mentioned specific sources for these rumors or lack thereof, perhaps concerned that they could leak to the press. In any case, with hindsight, both parties were wrong: the things they were afraid of had already happened, but the victims of them would not be ready to speak for another two decades. Society needed to change before they could. In the meantime, James Levine was hired for 1.94 million marks per year. ¶

Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.