Classical music isn’t in trouble. It’s classical music’s institutions that are the problem. This has become one of my mantras in recent years. But it’s been driven home, more than ever, by the recent ouster of the conductor James Levine.
Levine, if you somehow missed the headlines, is one of the names to surface in the post-Harvey Weinstein, expose-the-rats era. After newspaper articles cited four men who alleged he had sexually abused them as teenagers and young men, one institution after another has raced to dissociate themselves from him — the Ravinia Festival outside Chicago; the Boston Symphony Orchestra, for which he was music director for six years; the Verbier Festival; and even the Metropolitan Opera, the company he led, as artistic and music director, for four decades. All publicly severed ties with the conductor, with much wringing of their hands in public statements saying, in effect, we had no idea.
Levine has said in a statement that the charges are “unfounded,” adding, “I have not lived my life as an oppressor or aggressor.” And the police investigation of the 2016 report concluded that there were no grounds for criminal charges.
Classical music insiders have “known,” or thought they knew, about Levine for years. In an article in the online music magazine Van, the writer Ben Miller wrote that when he was 12, his parents, musicians in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, explicitly warned him about Levine. “They told me never to be alone in a room with James Levine. They told me to walk the other way if I saw him coming.”
How, he asks — we all ask — is it possible that the institutions that hired Levine were not aware of the rumors? How is it possible that the Metropolitan Opera, which received at least one explicit anonymous warning about Levine as long ago as 1979, and which has been holding onto the police report about another case since October, 2016, is suddenly shocked by the allegations?
“This is a tragedy for anyone whose life has been affected,” Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said in a statement to the press — a tragedy that didn’t, evidently, strike him enough to launch an actual investigation into Levine until the allegations made it into print.
Until now, I’ve thought the problem with classical music institutions is that they, like large institutions in other fields, are struggling to redefine themselves and win back audiences in today’s information age — like daily newspapers, like traditional churches. What the reaction to the Levine story is starting to reveal is that classical music institutions are even more of a problem than I thought.
True, sexual harassment and abuse is a rampant problem, not confined to one industry, as we are learning more and more every day. But classical music, which tries to maintain the fiction that it is privy to some kind of moral purity, along with all of that putative artistic superiority (the conductor Andris Nelsons recently had to retract his words after averring in a radio interview that abuse didn’t happen in the classical music world because art made people better human beings), seems to have a particularly toxic bunch of enablers at the helm.
The Boston Symphony’s self-serving posturings and the Met’s crocodile tears are the facades of institutions showing themselves willing to overlook anything, even sexual abusers and predators, in their struggles to raise the huge amounts of money needed for their own survival, and to present, at all costs, the stars they think the public wants to see. Levine has been widely accepted as one of the greatest American musicians, even through health woes that have kept him from effective leadership for the last decade or more, and through a personal life that everyone has thought it better not to investigate too closely. And in our collective willingness to accept that only certain people have that ineffable, true greatness that we want to believe music fosters, it turns out that we are also willing to put up with or explain away any number of abuses — as long as they don’t appear in the newspaper.
Now, Levine will become a convenient scapegoat, and institutions will race to condemn him with prurient finger-wagging, piling on almost gleefully in their eagerness to aver that they will never, ever, not ever work with him again. Meanwhile, orchestras and opera houses and conservatories and choruses all across the country continue to harbor and protect leaders who egregiously abuse their power, who harass musicians who can’t speak up, who assault and rape in the self-satisfied knowledge that they can get away with it.
Abuse is a crime of individuals; an institution cannot, itself, assault. And even the best-intentioned institution can’t necessarily protect a musician whose career depends on the networks of connections and word-of-mouth recommendations to which many abusers hold the keys. But I question, increasingly, just how well intentioned the institutions are that have allowed a system to grow up in which abusers can themselves invoke the protections of labor contracts and libel laws, and their own reputations as gods of at least their own particular corner of the music world, so they can maintain their stature and power. Our elevation of art as the good and the true has led to a proliferation of people hiding all manner of unsavory actions behind the shield of their supposed talent.
The institutions currently having the vapors about Levine had better take a long hard look in the mirror that the current climate of revelation is holding up to us all. Can they say, with certainty, that they are not harboring other abusers — that they are not celebrating other icons of the music world who have equally questionable reputations? At the moment, everyone is waiting, oddly flat-footed, to see who will be named next — or rather, which piece of common knowledge, masked as “rumor,” will be publicly confirmed.
An institution that really cared about ending the cycle of abuse might be proactive about such “rumors.” I am waiting for the first institution to get in front of the problem, to come clean. “In light of the current climate, and the repeated and widespread allegations made about this individual,” its statement might say — this performer in our orchestra, this conductor in our opera house, this tenured member of our conservatory faculty — “we at X institution have resolved to launch an internal investigation to resolve these claims once and for all.” It’s a nice dream, but I think I will be waiting for a long time — at the very least, until the next news report revealing yet another perpetrator.