PBS's American Masters: James Levine, America's Maestro

A program documenting the career of the renowned and revered Metropolitan Opera maestro.

By , Columnist
As one with limited knowledge of classical music, I was prepared to view PBS's American Masters documentary on maestro James Levine as one would look at a foreign culture. Interesting, yes, but did it have anything to do with me?

To my surprise, Levine's life and work resonated strongly with me, which is a testament to his "everyman" sensibilities. He regards himself as a "teacher/conductor." In rehearsals, he speaks to his orchestra, telling them what he wants, rather than solely using the gestures of a conductor to express himself. His enthusiasm and love for music is contagious and he encourages his students and colleagues to play from their souls and their hearts. When critiques are needed, he offers them gently but with wise precision.

Levine is approaching the fortieth anniversary of his Metropolitan debut, and filmmaker Susan Froemke's documentary looks back at his extraordinary body of work, beginning in 1971 when he debuted as a conductor for the Met at only 28 years old. Since then, Levine has made great strides in molding the Metropolitan Opera into the world class ensemble it is today. The program delves into how he greatly expanded the Met's repertory and nurtured new generations of young artists.

His present day life outside of music is not touched upon. But his childhood and adolescence are covered in some detail.  He grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, where his father led a dance band. As Levine grew, his love of music became all encompassing. At age ten he made his debut performance with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, performing Mendelssohn's second piano concerto. His mentors were Rudolph Serkin and George Szell, and some amazing footage is shown of their meetings. The word "prodigy" is never used but it certainly does fit.
Placido Domingo is shown in rehearsals with Levine for Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, and their banter and artistic camaraderie are a joy to behold. It is a relationship that has stood the test of time, going back to 1978 when Levine conducted Domingo in Tosca.

Levine does not let his chronic back problems slow him down. Despite his debilitating physical challenges he works daily to prepare his orchestra for their concert and opera performances. We are given a look at intense rehearsals with the orchestra on what will their first performance of Beethoven's Fifth at Carnegie Hall, and he compels his players to put energy and enthusiasm into this sublime but familiar work. "Play it like it was written yesterday, as though the ink is still wet," he tells them. Judging by the passion in the performance, the musicians take the maestro's advice to heart.

From his love of nurturing young talent, to his deep commitment to music, James Levine is a rare gem, and The American Masters documentary is a testament to his achievements. It will delight his fans and may even inspire those who have never delved into the world of operas and orchestras to become acquainted with Levine's world.

American Masters: James Levine: America's Maestro will air on PBS, June 1st and June 7th at 8PM ET.

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Mindy Peterman is a freelance writer whose focus is on television, movies and pop culture. She has written over one hundred articles for the award winning Blogcritics.org website and has conducted interviews with producer Peter Asher, psychic-medium John Edward, Greg Grunberg and Bob Guiney from Band…

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