James Levine: The Fresh Air Interview 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 the back troubles that recently led him to step down as the musical director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
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James Levine: The Man Behind The Met's Baton

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James Levine: The Man Behind The Met's Baton

James Levine: The Man Behind The Met's Baton

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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)

GROSS: 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's 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 your 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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