Ahead of His Time

James Levine Conducting

A long time ago, when I was working as a journalist in California, I came to Ravinia to do a feature interview with James Levine, who was Ravinia’s music director at that time, and in the course of the interview he said something that still haunts me today, as if somehow he sensed what would happen as a result of “social media”—which of course did not yet exist at that time.

I am definitely on the outside looking in when it comes to social media. Part of the reason is that I am a true introvert who values the time he is not in communication with others; another part is that, as a Baby Boomer, I was raised during a time when privacy and discretion were far more highly prized than they are today. Unlike Kim Kardashian, I don’t want millions and millions of people to know everything I think or do or eat or wear.

Certainly I appreciate the possibilities that new technology brings, but I am puzzled by the leap from the fact that it is now possible to call or text virtually anyone at any time—a good thing—to the obligation so many people feel to have to be calling or texting someone, anyone, at all times. For Pete’s sake, people are dying because folks can’t stop texting while they’re driving, and even the threat of death doesn’t seem to deter them.

The current social media frenzy that dominates the discussion of virtually any topic whatsoever would seem to have been predicted by Levine during the course of our interview. Musing about what he considered the irrelevance of most music criticism, he took a surprisingly prophetic turn when he observed:

“Our society is obsessed with what everybody thinks of everything. It’s everybody discussing things that they don’t even experience firsthand. I find it becomes more of an event to arrive at a point of view, to arrive at an opinion, than it is to open your sensory equipment into a relationship with that substance, whatever it happens to be. Everyone is so busy discussing whether X or Y is a ‘success’ or not. … I just wish the world didn’t seem to place such an incredible emphasis on a kind of secondhand living, as if maybe someday this species would evolve into people who had enormous mouths and only very small eyes and ears because it wouldn’t matter what they got through their eyes and ears firsthand. All that would matter was what they all agreed it was.”

He was astonishingly prescient. We may not have mutated physically, but instead of having tiny eyes, we have (relatively) tiny video screens on our phones, and instead of tiny ears, we have tiny earbuds to listen through. And the enormous mouths? Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, blogs, text messages—and the list is growing.

James Levine at the Ravinia Festival 50th AnniversaryHow prophetic was Levine? Keep in mind that the interview in question took place in 1978. At that time, the Internet did not yet exist. There was no e-mail; all of our arrangements were made over a telephone—with a cord (no one used the term “land line” because there was no other option). No one owned a personal computer, or even a word processor. I wrote up the interview on a typewriter (kids, ask your grandparents what that was). And yet that young musician—he was only 35 at the time—essentially peered four decades into the future.

Of course, even he would never have predicted his unscheduled Ravinia debut 45 years ago, conducting Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony for the festival’s gala benefit concert, nor the doors that would open for him following that auspicious event. And on July 23, again for Ravinia’s gala, he will reprise that historic performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.

Tickets to Ravinia's 50th Gala Benefit Evening featuring James Levine can be purchased at Ravinia.org