Almost two months ago, James Levine, after years of whispering and speculation, was finally accused publicly of sexual misconduct. I already covered it. In more recent weeks, Charles Dutoit has also been accused by several women of offense ranging from groping to flat-out rape. And there’s understandably been a tremendous buzz in the classical radio world on just how to handle the accusations and recordings made by the accused.
Last week I was interviewed by David C. Barnett of WCPN in Cleveland about this very thing. You can read or listen to that interview here. As you could probably guess, I’m very much in the zero-tolerance camp for both Levine and Dutoit. Especially Dutoit, as one of his accusers is soprano Sylvia McNair – recently-retired IU professor, still active in the music community in my market, and also a WFIU alum from back in the early 1980s. It hits home.
While recording my part of Barnett’s story (and we talked for a good twenty minutes – there was a lot that didn’t make the cut in his feature), I suggested that he reach out to someone with a completely opposing viewpoint. That someone was James Reel, a classical music presenter at Arizona Public Media in Tucson. James and I don’t agree on much at all, and it was that fact that led me to believe he would be a valuable addition to a story about a very complicated subject.
James Reel brought up a number of points that suggested that continuing to play recordings by accused sexual predators was not a big deal. He’s not the only one to have made those points in online forums, although others were more subtle. I’d like to offer my rebuttals to various points in that line of thought, both from James Reel’s portion of the WCPN interview, and paraphrases of comments I’ve seen in other places.
“We’re still playing recordings by James Levine and Charles Dutoit, but we don’t mention that they are the conductors.” – paraphrase of various comments
In most cases, this is a cop-out, plain and simple. I know that some classical announcers experiment with not mentioning a work’s conductor (I omit that information sometimes, too, as it can be superfluous to the casual listener, who most often is interested in “what was that piece, and who wrote it?”). But if announcers at a given station generally announce conductors, but choose to leave out only these two conductors, that’s just silly. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which understandably had a lot of Montreal Symphony/Dutoit recordings in rotation, is still playing them but simply omitting his name. That’s not taking a stand, that’s just hiding something. I think the CBC is showing a lack of spine with this decision. I would actually have more respect for them if they just kept up with business as usual.
“Wagner was an anti-Semite. Gesualdo killed his wife. Herbert von Karajan was a member of the Nazi Party. But we play their music! Maybe we should remove Picasso from all art museums, too!” – lots of people
Yes, we do play their music. And we look at Picasso. They’re also dead, as were the people they harmed or were party to harming. Gesualdo came up a lot in online forums, which I thought was particularly funny, given how little airtime he actually gets on classical radio. Point being: currency matters. We have had plenty of time to contextualize Wagner in music history. We’ve had less time for Karajan, but there are so many other recordings of music he recorded that are a lot more current, and in my opinion, just better on all fronts. And Gesualdo, well – whatever. But the victims of Levine and Dutoit are very much alive, and the effects of the trauma inflicted upon them are very real. I do think that someday, long in the future, classical music presenters will be able to play Levine and Dutoit again without reservation, once society has had time to look back at this incredible moment in history. But by then, there will be so many other great artists to sample that are actually contemporary, so why bother?
“By not playing recordings by James Levine or Charles Dutoit, you’re punishing blameless musicians who had nothing to do with their alleged actions.” – another paraphrase of comments I’ve read
I can see how this might be a “thing,” but at the end of the day I don’t think it is a “thing.” A quick scan of recordings by Charles Dutoit shows that most of them are from the 1970s through early 1990s. There are some releases from more recent years, but a close look at most of those shows that they are predominantly re-issues of old LPs that had not yet been converted to digital. With James Levine, my thoughts are similar, as is the timeline of his discography. How many musicians from those recordings are still actively performing with the Montreal Symphony, French National Orchestra, London Symphony, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, etc? And even if they are, how much of their livelihood relies on radio broadcasts of decades-old recordings? Admittedly, this argument becomes slightly more easy for me to understand when it comes to concertos and vocal music, where big-name soloists are the selling point of the recording, more so than the orchestra or the conductor. In the James Levine’s world of opera, this is even more the case. But many of these musicians, of course, can be heard in other settings with different conductors. We might miss out on Renee Fleming, Placido Domingo, Kathleen Battle, or Luciano Pavarotti singing on the Met stage with Levine in the pit, but they can all be heard in other places. Itzhak Perlman recorded the Mozart violin concerto cycle with Levine, but there’s a heck of a lot more Perlman available to listen to (and a heck of a lot more Mozart violin concerto cycles). Most importantly, though, we have to remember what these men have been accused of, and often the young men and women who were victimized by their actions have had grave career repercussions. A common theme among the young women allegedly assaulted by Charles Dutoit was that when they rebuffed his advances, they were blacklisted from any further collaboration. I think we need to be more concerned about those people, not those whose careers and legacies have already been established and don’t need the help of classical radio to maintain their status.
“I’m not James Levine’s employer, I’m not Charles Dutoit’s boss, I’m not their jury. And nothing I can do could have a direct, meaningful effect on them.” – James Reel
Everything James says here is true. And everything he says here is completely irrelevant to the actual topic at hand. The question is not whether or not we, as classical radio presenters, are having an effect on James Levine or Charles Dutoit. Nothing we do is going to turn them into better people. Similarly, nothing we do can ever heal the wounds they inflicted on so many. And no, we are not their bosses, judges, or juries. We are, though, curators and stewards of music. For those of us who work in non-profit settings (and if you work at a classical music station in America, it’s almost a certainty these days that you work in public, non-profit radio), our mission to inform, entertain, inspire, and foster arts appreciation in our communities is (or should be) the number one priority. When we program a piece of music, what we are implicitly saying to our listeners is “this music has value.” We are endorsing everything about it. If we play music conducted by people like James Levine and Charles Dutoit, all the while knowing full well what they’ve been accused of doing, what we are telling people is that we just don’t care. I’m not saying that they aren’t talented musical visionaries and that they haven’t treated concert-goers and radio listeners to many sublime moments over the decades. They certainly have – and so have many others. But if we allow ourselves to believe that a measure, a movement, a symphony, or an opera’s worth of musical bliss is worth ignoring the pain and anguish these men inflicted on so many, then we have truly lost our way.
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