By John Schauer
When I learned that James Levine would return to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia for the first time since the end of a fabled tenure as music director, it made me think back to the first—and only—time I ever met him.
It was 1978, and I was working as the arts and entertainment editor for The Advocate, a publication headquartered in San Francisco. We planned to devote an entire issue to opera, and I especially wanted to secure an interview with the brilliant, young (he was about to turn 35) music director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, James Levine. I sent him some of my clippings, including a thank-you note from Beverly Sills for my interview with her, and in a short while I got a phone call from him (direct—no secretary saying, “Please hold for Mr. Levine”), agreeing to the interview.
It simplified travel plans for me when I learned he would be in residence at Ravinia, since I had also scheduled an interview with Carol Fox at Lyric Opera. (That one never happened, unfortunately, because Ms. Fox had just fallen and broken a leg and didn’t want to conduct an interview from a wheelchair.)
Although I grew up in Milwaukee, I had never been to Ravinia—my parents were reluctant to drive across town, much less to Chicago—so I was given detailed driving instructions so as to arrive after an evening rehearsal. I was introduced to him in the conductor’s dressing room backstage of the Pavilion, set up my tape recorder, and proceeded to be astonished by the depth of his knowledge, the eloquence with which he dispensed it, and his generosity in the amount of time he took to share it. Most interviewers ask for a half hour of an artist’s time and will usually settle for 20 minutes. James Levine sat and talked with me for over four hours; we were winding up the interview at 2 a.m. Having such an embarrassment of riches, I realized how important it was for the finished piece to be outstanding. Fortunately, it was a hit; James liked it (we spoke by phone a few times in the following weeks), and it was undoubtedly the biggest feather in my journalistic cap, especially since he disclosed to me during the interview that he had already turned down three interview requests from the New York Times.
One thing I can share that I learned during those four hours was the correct pronunciation of his name. He explained that originally the family name was pronounced the way most people do it, luh-VEEN. But one of his ancestors built up his own clothing business, and the label in his garments was stylized with a large script V in the center, and so the pronunciation luh-VINE became the family norm.
Of course, at the time of the interview, neither of us suspected that one year after Levine relinquished his Ravinia post in 1993, I would find myself moving back to the Midwest to take a job as publications editor for the festival; and I had never imagined he would be returning to Ravinia one year after I retired from my position there. So on both ends of my 21-year tenure, I just missed getting to work with him. But that one spectacular time we did connect perhaps makes up for the loss.