New Details Emerge In Abuse Allegations Against Conductor James Levine

Mar 2, 2018
Originally published on March 16, 2018 9:00 am

On Friday morning the Boston Globe published details of allegations of sexual abuse by 74-year-old conductor and pianist James Levine, as well as chronicling "cult-like" behavior that the leading musician allegedly cultivated amongst his devotees while he was teaching at the Cleveland Institute of Music (CIM) in Ohio between 1965 and 1972.

Several of the individuals who spoke to the Boston Globe already had made accusations against Levine, which previously were published by the New York Post and the New York Times, in alleged episodes that spanned the 1960s to the 1980s.

In those allegations, which were published last December, four men (violinist and pianist Ashok Pai, bassist and professor Chris Brown, cellist James Lestock and violinist Albin Ifsich), came forward to accuse Levine of sexual abuse. Three of the alleged victims claimed that Levine first abused them when they were teenagers.

The details, context and specific episodes alleged in Friday's Globe center on the era when Levine was a rising star, teaching at CIM and conducting its University Circle Orchestra — a student ensemble Levine founded in 1966.

The Globe spoke to more than 20 students and former colleagues of Levine, including six individuals described as members of the conductor's "inner circle." The Globe's reporters call the alleged sexual misconduct "part of a sweeping system" of wider, domineering behavior to which Levine allegedly subjected his devotees, known at time as the "Levinites." The conductor is accused of dictating nearly every aspect of these students' lives, including "what they read, how they dressed, what they ate, when they slept — even whom they loved."

The nearly two dozen people interviewed by the Globe said that the center of these interactions were the daily, late-night gatherings that Levine would host at his home near the school's campus. Sometimes at these gatherings, the conductor allegedly would subject the "Levinites" to difficult, on-the-spot musical tests that had the potential to humiliate them, or the conductor would pose questions that were meant to test their loyalty to music over all else.

The conductor also allegedly would press his devotees to have sex with him, or to have mutual masturbation sessions with other members of the group.

Cellist Lynn Harrell — who was principal cellist with the Cleveland Orchestra and befriended Levine before going on to a notable solo career — told the Globe that the few female "Levinites" were made to come on to blindfolded men in the group, in an activity he said Levine intended to test the men's resolve and dedication to music.

"The idea was to prevent yourself from getting an erection," Harrell told the Globe. The cellist told the paper that he now considers the Levine situation in Cleveland a "tragedy," saying: ""I just wish it could have been what it seemed to mean at the time."

According to the Globe interviewees, Levine also instructed members of his entourage to break off relationships with family and friends, prevented them from reading the news or watching television, and barred them from cultivating relationships with "outsiders."

Levine also allegedly shamed devotees for indulging in such quotidian pleasures as hiking in Aspen, Colo., during the Aspen Music Festival, or for getting a suntan.

Violinist Albin Ifsich, who previously had made allegations against Levine public in the New York Times last December, told the Boston paper that Levine ordered him to choose between him and Ifsich's own mother.

"If you pick your mother," Ifsich recalls the conductor as having allegedly said, "you will walk out this door and never see me again. If you pick me, you will close the door, step into this house, and be with me forever."

Ifsich also told the Globe that Levine punished him for attending his sister's wedding in 1970.

"When I was caught, I was brought back and held down and tickled and slightly beaten," he told the Globe, saying that he was held down by multiple people. "A big thing was tickling you for a long time — half an hour or more. Those were usually the days Levine would take you home that night. He felt it would un-inhibit you."

James Lestock, who first encountered Levine as a cello student at a summer program in Michigan, the Meadow Brook School of Music (and where, Lestock told the Times in December, Levine allegedly began abusing him), told the Globe that he was subjected to further abuse when he traveled with the group to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's summer home, the Ravinia Festival in Illinois.

Lestock recounted an episode to the Globe when Levine began allegedly verbally abusing him and passed into physical abuse. Lestock told the Boston paper, "He asked me to take my clothes off and he started pinching me" in the inner thigh. "The emotional and physical pain got so great — I didn't know why he was hurting me," Lestock told the Globe, adding that Levine did not stop assaulting him even when he began to cry.

The Globe reports that Levine did not respond to repeated interview requests to address these latest allegations. He has denied previous allegations of sexual abuse to the paper. (Since December, NPR repeatedly has sought comment from Levine and his representatives; those requests have never received response.)

New York's Metropolitan Opera, where Levine has served as music director for 40 years, suspended the conductor last December and announced that they would launch their own investigation; the Met told the Globe that they would not comment on its article until that investigation was complete. The Met Opera did not respond to NPR's request for new comment.

CIM told NPR on Friday that it has no record or knowledge of complaints about Levine during his tenure at the school. CIM's president and CEO, Paul W. Hogle, added in a written statement: "Everyone at the Cleveland Institute of Music deeply regrets the reported behavior of conductor James Levine during his tenure here from 1965-72. We are deeply troubled to hear of these incidents, and disturbed to confront evidence of a culture that simply would not be tolerated today. ... There is absolutely no tolerance for behavior that puts our students at risk."

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, where Levine was music director between 2004 and 2011, told NPR that the latest allegations were "deeply disturbing," and reiterated its comments from December: "The Boston Symphony Orchestra has not worked with James Levine since he stepped down as music director in 2011. ... [Levine] will never be employed or contracted by the BSO at any time in the future."

The BSO added that when it hired Levine, its due diligence included background checks for criminal charges and "an analysis of any possible civil claims, as well as numerous conversations with music professionals around the country." During Levine's tenure in Boston, the BSO says that it never was approached by anyone about inappropriate behavior by the conductor.

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