Levine is certainly generous with his time when it comes to young musicians. He’s less available to the press—or so goes the conventional wisdom—preferring to lie low within the precisely superintended world of the Met. He insists claims he’s hard to pin down for an interview are false (“I’ve got a stack of magazines to prove it”). But even as he’s being interviewed, he’s wary of being written about. Largely it’s a desire to maintain some control over his personal life, which is much gossiped about but which he keeps defiantly, successfully offstage.
Levine lives with his closest friend, Sue Thompson, a former oboist whom he met in 1967. They share an apartment on the Upper West Side with two Bösendorfer pianos and a vast collection of music books and composers’ letters and, of all things, dinosaur bones (which Levine first got into as a teen). Of Thompson, who attends most of Levine’s performances, he says, “She’s unique in every respect. She played oboe beautifully, but she also gardens, she designs furnishings. It just seems she excels at whatever she approaches.” Levine gushes about Thompson, but he’s also quite protective of her and of himself.
His reticence comes not just from his almost charmingly unmodern conviction that one’s private world should remain just that, but also from a horror of being misquoted. Years ago, Levine submitted to a long interview with the Times that left him spooked. “There,” as he recalls it, “on the first page of the ‘Arts & Leisure’ section, the very first sentence, I was quoted as saying, ‘Everything I do is to achieve the maximum impression.’ But I said ‘expression.’ Two letters, but the meaning was completely different.”
His awareness that writers can get things wrong may explain the care he gives now in explaining the state of his health. He suffers from sciatica, for which he does stretching exercises daily. He also sits on a stool to conduct. A more difficult distraction is what he calls “intermittent tremors” on his left side, which began in 1994 and vary in intensity from day to day. The conductor states flatly that the condition is not Parkinson’s disease, as people had speculated in “that silly Times piece.” He won’t go into too explicit detail about his health, though. “People will get worried, and I’ll get letters.”
But people already worry. “Some days I see that he has the tremors,” says David Chan, a violinist and concertmaster of the Met orchestra, “and I’m concerned for him.” Chan does not, however, “buy into the idea that his health has made him less effective as a conductor. I don’t see that at all.”
In terms of getting through a performance, Levine insists it’s his back trouble, not the tremors, that poses the problem. “You are moving and whacking your body for hours. All those Wagner operas that start at six o’clock and finish at midnight.”
So, he’s begun, in recent years, to temper his rhythm. “The real trick is having five or six days in which I don’t have a rehearsal or a performance. So I can study, I can sleep, I can walk, I can be interested in other people. It is important not to have week after week of the little voice in back of me controlling how you eat or what you do with your muscles in order to have it when you’re supposed to give it to the audience.”
Levine has been giving it to audiences since he was a boy. Born in Cincinnati in 1943, he grew up in an artistically inclined household, his father a clothing manufacturer who’d been a big-band leader, his mother a housewife who’d acted on Broadway. When he was 2 or 3, “his father used to hold him in his arms and sing to him before bed,” says 90-year-old Helen Levine, who can often be seen at her son’s performances. “He would wake up the next morning and pick out the tunes on the piano he had heard the night before. I guess I thought all babies were like that.” Mrs. Levine used to practice with Jimmy on the piano “until he got better than I was, which was when he was 6. We also read plays together. I’d read the women’s parts, and he’d read the men’s. We read Shaw that way.”
At 10, Levine made his professional debut, playing Mendelssohn’s second piano concerto with the Cincinnati Symphony. His mother was “petrified. I suddenly thought, What am I doing to this child? What if he makes a mistake, and I let him do it? Of course, he never did.”
At 18, Levine cruised through Juilliard, after which he apprenticed with the legendary Hungarian conductor George Szell. Having abandoned early dreams of being a pianist, a composer, and, he confesses, a singer, he made his major opera debut conducting Tosca at the San Francisco Opera in 1970.