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James Levine: The Man Behind The Met's Baton

Conductor James Levine is known for bringing out the best in musicians and ensembles. Here, he reflects on his 40-year tenure with the Metropolitan Opera, his life in music and back troubles that recently led him to step down as the musical director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

44:46

Other segments from the episode on May 4, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 4, 2011: Interview with James Levine; Review of Adam Hochschild's book "To End All Wars."

Transcript

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James Levine: The Man Behind The Met's Baton

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, James Levine, is celebrating his 40th anniversary conducting
the Metropolitan Opera. He was 27 when he made his debut there. Our
classical musical critic Lloyd Schwartz says: Levine turned the
orchestra into one of the world's great ensembles.

Levine has conducted nearly 2,500 live opera performances. A new book
commemorating his anniversary has just been published, called "James
Levine: 40 Years at the Metropolitan Opera." It includes many
photographs, as well as reminiscences from Levine and stories about him
from many singers and musicians, including Placido Domingo, Daniel
Barenboim, Renee Fleming, Marilyn Horne, Jessye Norman and Teresa
Stratas.

Levine has suffered from back problems for the past few years, which led
him to cancel many performances. In March, he announced his resignation
from his other position, music director of the Boston Symphony
Orchestra. We'll talk about that a little later.

Let's start with a clip from a new documentary about Levine that will be
shown on public television June 1. Here he is rehearsing the Met's
orchestra.

(Soundbite of documentary, "James Levine: America's Maestro")

Mr. JAMES LEVINE (Music Director, Conductor, Metropolitan Opera): We all
have to have the same thought in our head when we start this piece. This
piece was just written. The ink was yet yesterday. Like, the minute we
stand back here from it in any way, it's gone.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LEVINE: Just dare yourself to play the first three notes in the
speed and drive and force and power and excitement that you really think
they should have. And strings, don't make (makes noises) but (makes
noises). So there's a violence and an excitement together, and a focus
that is absolutely not beaten in any other piece written before or
after. And burn the E-flat as best you can. And one.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LEVINE: Hold it, burn it, yes. Rip on, one, te-te-ta-da. Yeah. Rip
on. Te-te-ta-da

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LEVINE: Love it. Don't be late starting. Harder, harder. Ta-da. Burn
it out. Rip it off. One. De-te-da-da...

GROSS: James Levine, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for coming.
Congratulations on your anniversary. Would you take us back to your
first night conducting at the Met? What did you conduct, and how nervous
were you?

Mr. LEVINE: Ah, well, I conducted "Tosca," which was what Mr. Bing
invited me to conduct on June 5, 1971. And I was very excited, but I
wasn't nervous. I kept thinking I should be nervous, but I wasn't. And I
think the reason was I had really grown up concentrating on music and on
opera and particularly on the Met.

Ever since I was a kid, I'd gone and heard performances in New York and
heard performances on tour and listened to the radio every Saturday
afternoon. So when the time came that I was actually standing there
conducting, I remember feeling, at various points along the way that I
was feeling very amazingly at home. So it was a very exciting
experience, but it didn't make me nervous.

GROSS: So you were, what, 27 or 28?

Mr. LEVINE: Yes, it was June 5, 1971. I guess I was 27.

GROSS: Do you think members of the orchestra thought: Who is this kid?
He may be brilliant, but he's still relatively a kid?

Mr. LEVINE: Well, it may be that they thought that, but I have found -
and I was very aware of it during my younger years, that somehow
musicians tend to interact with respect to skill and talent and energy
and something in their personalities that clicks with good chemistry.

And I've never noticed that being a much older member of a group or a
much younger member has very much to do with the interaction in this
particular subject, in this art form.

GROSS: Now, as a conductor, you're not that kind of, like, really
dramatic, gesturing conductor. And in fact, you know, I've been watching
the DVD, and it's really - the DVD of the documentary that will be shown
on public television. It's really interesting.

And there's a part where you're saying to the orchestra that you don't
want to over-conduct visually because you're saying to the orchestra
please do it yourselves. If I make gestures, the audience measures what
they hear with what they see. Would you elaborate on that for us?

Mr. LEVINE: Sure. It's just that if you're sitting at a concert, and
your orientation is to watch the conductor, you get your aural sense
interfered with in a way that is probably not completely controllable
and conscious because you see the conductor gesturing in a way that
shows something about his feeling about the passage.

And this, unconsciously, you measure against what you hear. And I think
the most satisfying performances that I hear live are usually conducted
by conductors who have a very clear-cut idea of what their function is
at a rehearsal and what their function is at a concert, namely...

GROSS: Would you describe the difference?

Mr. LEVINE: Yes, it's that in a rehearsal you use everything, every
persuasive thing at your disposal to make the orchestra conscious of as
many details of the conception as you can. But when the concert comes,
or the performance comes, the orchestra has to be empowered to function
within this conception without having to check with the middleman.
Understand what I mean?

GROSS: I do. Yeah.

Mr. LEVINE: That is that it's not possible to feel and play and respond
to what you feel inside and keep looking to have a constant kind of
alignment, shall we say, with the gesture of the conductor.

You will find almost all of the great conductors use classical gestures
in concerts so that the - it isn't that they look uninvolved, it's that
they're - you don't have an art form created that was never intended.
That is, you don't see a kind of a mime show where someone is, quote,
"acting out the way the piece makes them feel."

This, I think, is a real misconception, and it rarely has anything to do
with what you hear coming out.

GROSS: So how do you see your role in performance?

Mr. LEVINE: I just see that I want to be always there for the players so
that when they check for something they want to remember or for
something that they need or for something which is a technical help in
the concert that they can see it. But I want to do that in a way in
which the audience is not getting a visual show instead of an aural one.

For example, I will sometimes spend a lot of time in a rehearsal
rehearsing sudden moments, sudden contrasts in a way that the orchestra
can do them without my telegraphing them a beat ahead of time.

GROSS: So did you arrive at this conclusion that you didn't want to be a
mime, miming the emotional action of the piece, did you arrive at that
conclusion as an...?

Mr. LEVINE: I arrived at it when I was a kid.

GROSS: Really?

Mr. LEVINE: Yes. I was going to a lot of performances and watching a lot
of conductors and finding that there was a certain point at which some
conductors were so gestural that what was coming out was not there in
the sound. In other words, the sound didn't relate effectively for me to
the gesture.

GROSS: My guest is James Levine. A new book celebrates his 40th
anniversary conducting the Metropolitan Opera. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is James Levine. His 40th anniversary conducting the
Metropolitan Opera is commemorated in a new book and a documentary that
will be shown on public TV June 1.

Now, I want to ask you a rehearsal question, and what I want to do is
play a short passage from Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing in "The
Trojans," the Berlioz opera, and our music critic, our classical music
critic Lloyd Schwartz, whose work I know you know, called this the
single greatest tragic performance he ever saw at the Met.

There's a chord toward the end of this passage, about a minute in, that
is very kind of dissonant and really stands out from the melody
surrounding it. It's deep and rumbly. And after we hear this, I want you
to talk about that chord and what you had to think about when rehearsing
the orchestra and how that chord should be colored.

So here's Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, my guest James Levine conducting the
Met.

(Soundbite of opera, "The Trojans")

Ms. LORRAINE HUNT LIEBERSON (Singer): (Singing in foreign language).

GROSS: Do you know the chord that I mean there?

Mr. LEVINE: Well, the large one yes, I think.

GROSS: Yeah, and as it resolves, there are still kind of notes, other
notes hanging in the air. I think it's just, like, so beautiful. And I'd
like you talk about, like, rehearsing the orchestra for that and
thinking about how to color that.

Mr. LEVINE: Actually, you're going to be disappointed with this. I'm
sorry.

GROSS: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I can handle it.

Mr. LEVINE: They did it themselves.

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. LEVINE: They could feel it for themselves. I didn't have to do
anything. That is, they understood this passage. We had worked on it
over years before. When this particular revival came about, they all
responded to Lorraine's particular phenomenal kind of expression.

And that particular chord, that is such - that comes at a moment where
what she's remembering and what she's imagining and what she's leaving
is very wrenching.

And, you know, it's interesting you should mention that chord because
had you gone on a tiny bit further, you would hear what happens at the
end of that aria, which isn't very far away, and where the final mood is
distilled into a single note instead of a chord, which has an even
greater poignancy than the chord because the chord came before.

And I think these are these miraculous things that composers do, some of
which you can achieve by explanation and some by gesture and some by a
combination and some by experience and some by the way one element in
the combination chemically affects another.

But there is no pro-forma, no predetermined way that works. If there
were, you could always get a great performance.

GROSS: Now, I know you said that they just did it themselves, that you
didn't do anything, but...

Mr. LEVINE: I didn't.

GROSS: But you had to keep all of the instruments in perfect balance so
that that beautiful...

Mr. LEVINE: No, no, they had to.

GROSS: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEVINE: You see, I didn't play a single sound. See, this is - the
only reason I'm saying these things is because people like to imagine
that the conductor does lots of things he doesn't do. And they don't
understand, often, a lot of things we do do. And I think one of the most
important things we don’t do is get in the way of the artistry of the
musicians who are playing.

GROSS: So now I want to play the final part of that aria so we can hear
that poignant note that you're talking about, the note made more
poignant because of the chord that precedes it. So we'll pick it up
before that wonderful chord and take it to the end.

LEVINE: Good, good.

(Soundbite of opera, "The Trojans")

Ms. LIEBERSON (Singer): (Singing in foreign language).

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: So that was Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and my guest James Levine,
conducting the Metropolitan Opera, and...

Mr. LEVINE: She was amazing, wasn't she?

GROSS: Yeah, she was, and she died in 2006. And her husband, the
composer Peter Lieberson, who you also worked with, died in April of
this year.

Mr. LEVINE: We lost them, her, you know, I mean ridiculously too soon.
And of course, that's - you know, what can one say? This is - especially
when there's artistry on that level, you wish it would last forever.

GROSS: So we just heard something really, you know, beautiful and kind
of quiet. You're known, among other things, for your performances of
Wagner, the kind of biggest opera of all.

And I'm curious what it feels like to be in the position that you're in
and, you know, in front of the - surrounded by the orchestra and in
front of the singers, when things are at their most passionate and
loudest. I mean, can you feel the music in your body? Are you - can you
feel the vibration of the music in your body?

Mr. LEVINE: Sure, of course, absolutely.

GROSS: Is that a good feeling?

Mr. LEVINE: Wonderful. And - but I can feel that sitting in a seat in
the orchestra. And I can feel that sitting in the audience. But I
suppose conductors are in a particularly good spot when the performance
is going on. We have - in a certain way, we sit too close, but in
another sense, we feel immersed in it. So I suppose that is a good and
bad thing.

GROSS: Now, how much are you allowing yourself to have the passion of
the story and of the music affect you? And how much are you just kind of
standing back to be there for the orchestra when they need you for cues
or whatever?

Mr. LEVINE: I think it's all the same process. I don't find that I - I
don't think of it in separate pieces, really. I don't inhibit myself,
but I channel myself.

GROSS: And what's your approach to sitting or standing when you conduct?

Mr. LEVINE: Well, in recent years, because I have back trouble, I found
it much, much better to sit. And I always stood for everything, for
years and years. And when the back trouble got to where it affected my
standing stamina, then I began to sit, and it freed me completely. I
feel much more - sitting, I'm anchored where I'm sitting the way I used
to be anchored where I was standing.

In Europe, opera conductors, particularly in German opera theaters,
almost always sit because of the - probably partly because of the length
of the pieces but also because it - there's a kind of ability to control
the motion, which stays in focus a little better when you sit.

I can understand why that system does that. It's very common for
conductors to rehearse sitting and perform standing. And I found once I
started to perform sitting down, it was very freeing for me to feel the
same way physically in a concert as I did in a rehearsal.

GROSS: So since we brought up Wagner, I have to ask you if you know the
Bugs Bunny cartoon, "What's Opera, Doc?," where "The Ride of Valkyries"
is...?

Mr. LEVINE: You know, it's funny. I have a vague memory of that, but I
haven't seen that in ages. It's not one of those things that I remember
vividly.

GROSS: Oh, it's great: Kill the wabbit.

Mr. LEVINE: Yeah, I love it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: James Levine will be back in the second half of the show. A new
book celebrates his 40th anniversary conducting the Met. I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. (Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross back with James Levine, who's
celebrating his 40th anniversary conducting the Metropolitan Opera. The
anniversary is commemorated in the new book, “James Levine: 40 Years at
the Metropolitan Opera,” and a new documentary that will be shown June
1st on public television. For the past few years, Levine’s had back
problems that have forced them to cancel many performances and led to
his announcement, in March, that he was resigning from his other
position, music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

There’s a famous story from your life that I want you to talk about. You
stuttered as a young child and your doctor thought music might help you
overcome the stutter. Your parents got you a piano and you overcame your
stutter and became a brilliant pianist and conductor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So...

Mr. LEVINE: And a marathon talker.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEVINE: No. It's very funny because of the story is – it true, that
when I was a little kid I used to reach up and try to play the piano,
reach up high to reach the piano when I passed by. We had a piano in the
living room. And I also at that time to sing a tune coherently, but I
had a very strong speech impediment. And when my parents said to the
doctor, oh, what do you think, he said well, what's he interested in?
And when they told them about my banging on the piano, he suggested
piano lessons. So they did some investigation to find out who they
should send me to and I started piano lessons when I was not quite four
years old and the speech impediment promptly disappeared and I got very
interested in the piano. And eventually, I guess, my having been a slow
talker to start with, I made up for it.

GROSS: Now I took piano lessons when I was a kid and I had those kind of
piano books with really stupid songs in it. Like one of the ones I
remember was the “Kangarooster” and the lyric that accompanied the silly
melody was: in the land of kangaroos there lived a kangarooster. Half of
them was kangaroo, the other half was rooster. Did you learn to play
from books like that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEVINE: I've seen a lot of books like that. I see them in the piano
benches when I'm looking at music people have in their houses. But no, I
know those books, I've seen them, but I didn't start with that. I
started with good old finger exercises and very simple sort of pieces
that were written by great composers.

GROSS: Now your father led a pop band, right?

Mr. LEVINE: Dance band. Yes.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. So...

Mr. LEVINE: Actually, my dad was - when he graduated from college, he
was asked by some friends whether he would lead a band they were forming
and he went to California and did, in fact, broadcast from the Beverly
Wilshire Hotel every night from 7:15. And I think we came across some
air checks from those days, my brother and I, when we were playing in
the basement one day, and we had them transferred onto record, on to CD,
LP first and then CD for my dad so that he could give them to his
friends. And there were quite a few good ones. A lot of crackles and
pops on them, but they restored relatively easy and it's from a style
that's so, that's gone, but really has a wonderful feeling.

GROSS: So that's how we have this artifact, because you saved it.

Mr. LEVINE: Yes.

GROSS: Okay. So...

Mr. LEVINE: And we found wonderful pictures of him with the other
bandleaders there in that time of - and with - and from various
bandstands where he was performing. And it's funny, the whole style of
it is of something very dated now, but it was very, very good.

GROSS: So, and that’s singing in the...

Mr. LEVINE: Yes, that’s him singing. He also played the violin. But I
think the singing was most of his solo things.

GROSS: Okay. So here's James Levine's father.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man: And here is Larry right now to sing a bit of sweet
swing for you.

(Soundbite of song, “Getting Some Fun Out of Life)

Mr. LAWRENCE LEVINE (Singer; bandleader): (Singing) When we want to
love, we love. When we want to kiss me kiss, with a little petting,
we're getting from some fun out of life. When we want to work, we work.
When we want to play we play.

GROSS: So that was James Levine's father back when he was the leader of
the Larry Lee and his orchestra.

Mr. LEVINE: That’s it.

GROSS: I guess Lee for Levine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEVINE: 1938.

GROSS: Okay. That's great. So you were exposed to a lot of music. Now
your father, though had to leave the profession of music and ended up
joining the family business, which was...

Mr. LEVINE: Well, he did it on purpose. He said to me years later - I
asked him why he'd done it - and he said he sort of enjoyed it and he’d
done what he went there to do and he thought it was not a responsible
thing to do to raise a family. And he’d fallen in love with my mother
and sure enough, she'd been a professional actress and he a professional
bandleader, and they moved to Cincinnati and he, along with his
brothers, became the next generation of his father's business and he did
that for many years.

GROSS: And the business was...

Mr. LEVINE: Ladies clothes.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. So your parents both gave up careers in arts to raise you
and then you became a full-time artist.

Mr. LEVINE: Well, yes, that's true. I mean they didn't know any of that
at the time, of course. But they got married in 1940 and I was born in
1943.

GROSS: Now your grandfather on your mother's side, was a cantor.

Mr. LEVINE: Yes.

GROSS: Which means that he sang the religious music in the synagogue.
Was he alive when you were growing up and did you get to hear him sing?

Mr. LEVINE: No. He was my great-grandfather. I never did get to hear him
sing.

GROSS: Oh, I see. I see.

Mr. LEVINE: And he had written a service of music for the synagogue
which I have. I have the music but I never heard him. And my maternal
grandfather, my mother's father, died when I was very young. I barely
knew him. But I knew my father's father better.

GROSS: Did you ever play the music that he wrote?

Mr. LEVINE: Yes. I didn't play it in public but I studied it because I
really wanted to know what it was. It was very, very good.

GROSS: Oh good. I'm glad to hear it was good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEVINE: Yeah. I was too.

GROSS: So with you're great-grandfather having been a cantor, did you
grow up in a religious family?

Mr. LEVINE: No. My parents had joined the Isaac M. Wise Temple, which
was of the first reformed Jewish temple in America. And that was in
Cincinnati and that’s really the way my up bringing was. It was very
strong in the arts, and strong in philosophy, and strong in history, and
in background; but it wasn't rigorous in the orthodox sense.

GROSS: So you started playing piano when you were four. And when you
were 10 you made your debut with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEVINE: Yes...

GROSS: Performing Mendelssohn’s “Piano Concerto Number 2.” I mean that's
kind of remarkable. So I mean where your feet able to touch the pedals
at age 10?

Mr. LEVINE: Oh yes.

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. LEVINE: Oh yes. I was not one of the kids who got up there in short
pants and a sailor suit. No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. LEVINE: It wasn't any of that stuff. No, my parents were very feet
on the ground about all those things.

GROSS: So as a 10-year-old, do you think you were able to hear the
musical and emotional complexities of the music? Like, do you hear that
piece completely differently now than you did when you were a child?

Mr. LEVINE: That’s a very wonderful question. As a matter of fact, I
hear a great deal music differently now, of course, because the more
music you know and the longer you live the more insight you have to the
complicated music. But fortunately, there are some pieces, and the
second Mendelssohn’s “Piano Concerto” is one of them, that have a fairly
exuberant and adolescent conception. And it was a very appropriate piece
for me to play at that age and my feeling for it was strong then and
have never abated. I still think it's a marvelous piece. And I think if
that had been a Brahms concerto or a, I don’t know, a Tchaikovsky
concerto, there may have been things about it that I would have needed
to get older to understand. But in this case, perhaps not.

GROSS: So in Julliard, you were a double major in piano and conducting.

Mr. LEVINE: Right.

GROSS: Why did you decide to go in the direction of conducting instead a
piano?

Mr. LEVINE: Well, I didn't really. It wasn't really instead of. I think
I wouldn't have done it if it had meant that I couldn't sustain the
piano. But it was obvious that to learn about conducting was a much more
complex undertaking, because you're talking about music for more than
just the piano. You're talking about oratorios and operas and
symphonies, and music that uses lots of people and a lot greater breadth
and depth of knowledge is necessary to concentrate only on solo piano
music. And I think I discovered, fairly young, that music, ensemble
music, music for more than one player interested me the most, and of
that music, what made me the most happy was music that combined
instruments and voice. So that meant I was most happy playing song
literature and oratorios and operas and all that wonderful inspiration
that puts voices and instruments together.

GROSS: My guest is James Levine, a new book celebrates his 40th
anniversary conducting the Metropolitan opera.

We’ll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is James Levine. He’s
celebrating his 40th year as the conductor at the Met. And there’s a new
book called “James Levine: 40 Years at the Metropolitan Opera,” and a
new documentary about him that will be shown on public television June
1st.

Now you’ve been dealing with back pains since 2006. You recently
resigned from the Boston Symphony Orchestra to take effect in September.
The pain started, I think, after you fell on stage in 2006? Do I have
that right?

Mr. LEVINE: Yes. I can't, I'm not so sure. It may have been there before
but it was fairly coincident, yes.

GROSS: What happened on stage when you fell?

Mr. LEVINE: I just tripped and I tore my rotator cuff on the right side,
completely, and had to have a complete rotator cuff repair, which was a
miraculous operation. I mean the doctor who did it was really a genius
and the result is I haven't had the slightest problem with this arm. And
after all, it takes - when you conduct Wagner operas day after day, that
arm takes a tremendous stress, and the full range of motion has been
there ever since he fixed it.

GROSS: So which part of your back is the problem? The lower back or
the...

Mr. LEVINE: Well, I just seem to have problems. I had some problems at
various times with the lumbar spine and sometimes with the cervical
spine. But that seems to be, at least during this period of my
vulnerability. And it's very funny because - I have to tell you though,
my general health has always been so good, and my life has always been
so fortunate, that even when this has - had, real, you know, really made
my life miserable for periods of time, I still feel like a very, very
lucky guy. I look around me and I think, I don't know anybody who
doesn't have to solve some kinds of problems and deal with, you know,
everything can't be perfect. There has to be - human beings go through
things. And in any case, my doctors all think, that in the course of the
next, I don't know, year or two, as I do - as I still have one area
giving me pain. And if we do, in fact, solve that – and I think we have
- we still have some things we can do to solve it - I may wake up one
day and be free of back pain again.

GROSS: But you're not pain-free now?

Mr. LEVINE: No. Absolutely not. I have - sometimes I am free of it for
periods of time, but I'm distracted by it when I, not when I conduct,
actually. Fortunately, when I'm in that physical position I'm remarkably
comfortable. But walking is very difficult. Walking is uncomfortable and
I have to change position frequently. Maybe that’s one of the things
that's good about conducting.

GROSS: Have you gone through a transition of just kind of reconciling
that you're no longer a young man and you can't keep the schedule that
the young James Levine kept?

Mr. LEVINE: Well, I'll tell you. First of all, I kept that schedule for
a very long time. Maybe I did...

GROSS: I know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEVINE: ...you know, very long time. Second of all, life is
different then and there were times when it was really necessary and I
learned a great deal. And I think maybe on balance it was mostly a good
thing. But I think just as that was mostly a good thing, coming to a
point where it was imposed on me to reduce it is also a good thing.
Because you come to a point where you want a little more time to reflect
between things, and you want a little more time to be able to decide
what you really would like to do that’s new and what you'd like to do in
the way of repeating something that is - so that you're not wasting the
time. And I think one of two things will demonstrate themselves over the
next season or two. Either I will eventually be completely free of this
problem, and many conductors live to a ripe old age and do better work
in their 70s and 80s than they did in their 60s. On the other hand, if
my trajectory is different and this never really is 100 percent and I
must always consider, you know, doing what I can do and not more, maybe
they'll come a time when it's in my way enough to say, you know, I
really don't think I should do this anymore. But fortunately, that issue
hasn't raised itself.

If I were to stop working at any moment, I would still feel that I mean,
no matter how long one does this, you can't do everything you want in
one lifetime and I would be happy to do it as long as I can, but also
willing to stop whenever it's the right time.

GROSS: So you decided to step down from the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Mr. LEVINE: Well, that was, I was sorry to have to do that because I
simply couldn't keep canceling concerts at short notice without it being
completely artistically impossible for them and for the audience, and I
wasn't crazy about it either, of course. And I think the timing was just
bad. It might happen that within the next couple of years I find myself
out of that problem, but at the time, we couldn't possibly have gone on
with my rate of cancellation and it wouldn't have been fair to anybody.
And I think - I'm sorry that the timing was like that. But as I say, my
life is so lucky that I really don't have trouble putting up with the
adversities that come along with it.

GROSS: So it's clear you were brilliant in the world of music. There is
a Sondheim song, I'm not sure if you know the lyrics of song, “Anyone
Can Whistle, and the song is about not knowing how to whistle, right? So
the lyric is: With hard comes easy, with natural comes hard. Do you ever
feel that way about your life? The things that come hard to people like
playing piano brilliantly, conducting the opera, that's kind of
relatively easy for you. But the things that come easy for other people
are kind of baffling for you?

Mr. LEVINE: That’s a very sweet question. I've never thought of that in
those terms. I don't think so because a lot of things that come easy for
people come easy for me too. But I still remember for instance, when I
was a kid and they threw me in the water; I swam immediately, for
example.

GROSS: Did they throw you in the water to be mean or to teach you how to
swim?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEVINE: No, no, no, no, no, no. No, no. To teach me out to swim.

GROSS: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEVINE: My parents did, and I took to the water immediately. So
things like, I think my personality is basically on the gregarious side.
But I'm very conscious that you have to keep that aspect of your
personality under control to do my work. My work takes a lot of study
and a lot of thought and a lot of reflection and a lot of energy. And so
you’d - if you elect to do this work, if you are lucky and you have the
possibility to do it, then you don't feel as though you give up things
to it. Rather you feel that you're lucky to be able to do it.

GROSS: Just one short final question. How hard has it been to get people
to call you Levine instead of Levine?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEVINE: Oh...

GROSS: How many years did that take?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEVINE: You see that's typical. Doesn't matter to me and so I never
worry with it.

GROSS: All right.

Mr. LEVINE: Half my family pronounced it Levine. The dress manufacturing
half pronounced it Levine because it looked like Levine in their
trademark. No. And I never cared whether I was called Jim, James, Jimmy,
Jamie or anything. I love names.

GROSS: Well, I’ll...

Mr. LEVINE: And I love accents.

GROSS: I'll call you Maestro.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEVINE: Anything you like. Whatever you like.

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been a
pleasure.

Mr. LEVINE: Thank you.

GROSS: James Levine is celebrating his 40th anniversary conducting the
Met. There’s a new book of photos and reminiscences called “James
Levine: 40 Years at the Metropolitan Opera.” A new documentary about
Levine will be shown June 1st on public TV. You can see three clips from
it on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you'll also find a photo of
Levine rehearsing the Met’s orchestra before his debut.

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Adam Hochschild’s new book about
World War I.

This is FRESH AIR.
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WWI: A Moral Contest Between Pacifists And Soldiers

(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

As soon as Osama bin Laden's death was announced this week, book critic
Maureen Corrigan says her Facebook page filled up with triumphant images
of the American flag and the Statue of Liberty holding bin Laden's head.
It also began filling with protests against celebrations of bin Laden's
killing. Maureen says this Internet civil war underscored the relevance
of a book she just finished about the moral contest between pacifists
and proponents of the first World War. Here's her review of Adam
Hochschild’s new history “To End All Wars.”

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Adam Hochschild frames his pensive narrative history
about the first World War with accounts of his own walks through what
once was the Western Front. He describes it as a thin band of territory,
stretching through northern France and a corner of Belgium that has the
greatest concentration of young men's graves in the world.

Amid the cemeteries and the monuments, the undetonated explosives and
helmets, belt clips and other rusted metal - some half-million pounds of
which continue to be unearthed from farmers' fields every year -
Hochschild stumbles upon something singular. A few miles outside of the
Flemish town of Ypres, he spots a homemade, chest-high wooden cross, and
next to it, blown over by the wind, a small potted fir tree with some
silver balls attached. This ragged tribute stands in memory of the
impromptu Christmas Truce of 1914, when thousands of British and German
soldiers and officers put down their arms, traded cigarettes and canned
food, and even staged soccer matches in no man's land. Hochschild says
this is the one monument along the entire Western Front celebrating
anyone for doing something other than fighting or dying.

Hochschild's new book called, “To End All Wars,” can be thought of, in
metaphorical terms, as something like both a traditional war monument
and that pacifist Christmas tree. His book traces the wellsprings of the
fervent patriotism that seemed to instantly materialize in Great Britain
in the summer of 1914, as well as the patchy but persistent British
resistance to the war.

By conflict's end, Hochschild says, more than 20,000 British men of
military age refused the draft. More than 6,000 served prison terms
under harsh conditions - hard labor, a bare-bones diet, and a strict
rule of silence. This is the kind of investigatory history Hochschild
pulls off like no one else. As he demonstrated in his last book, “Bury
the Chains,” about the 18th-century movement to end slavery in Great
Britain, Hochschild is a master at chronicling how prevailing cultural
opinion is formed and, less frequently, how it's challenged.

Although Hochschild doesn't aim to write yet another comprehensive
history of World War I, the military aspect of his narrative is
undeniably gripping. Other historians have discussed the horrors that
innovations like barbed wire, tanks and chlorine gas wrought on a
British army that, in the early years of the war, still placed its
highest confidence in horses and lances.

But, through eye-witness accounts and official correspondence,
Hochschild makes a reader feel anew the shock of modern technological
warfare. The much less familiar World War I story that Hochschild
uncovers is that of the resisters. To his credit, Hochschild renders the
pacifists' tales no less compelling than those of the soldiers in the
trenches. It's an oddity of history - and a boon to Hochschild's
narrative - that some of the most vocal critics of the war were closely
related to its most ardent supporters. Suffragist and pacifist Charlotte
Despard was the sister of Sir John French, commander-in-chief on the
Western Front. The famous Pankhurst family of suffragists was so torn
apart by vicious disagreements about the war that its matriarch,
Emmeline, broke off all contact with her pacifist daughter, Sylvia.

The price others paid for resisting was, of course, even harsher.
Hochschild writes that in 2006, the British government granted a blanket
posthumous pardon to more than 300 executed World War I soldiers who had
refused to fight.

In “To End All Wars,” Hochschild gives readers much more than an account
of dissension in the trenches and on the British home front. He enlarges
on the deeper question that has engrossed him throughout most of his
writing: Namely, what does it take for a person to shake off the
shackles of conventional wisdom and to think for him or herself? And
what punishments does society mete out? What apologies does posterity
sometimes offer to those courageous enough to see things differently?

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed “To End All Wars” by Adam Hochschild. You can read an excerpt
on our website, freshair.npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, veteran journalist and author Pete Hamill
talks about his new novel, “Tabloid City,” and how columnists of his day
differed from edgy bloggers of the new media.

Mr. PETE HAMILL (Author, “Tabloid City”): We came from a tradition where
we were paid to have opinions. But the opinions were based on the
reporting. We had been there.

GROSS: Join us.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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