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Culture Watch: James Levine, America's Maestro

June 1, 2011 |  7:00 am

Levine2 James Levine: America’s Maestro (PBS)

The 40th anniversary of James Levine’s Metropolitan Opera debut has been bittersweet. The sweet part is a massive set of live performances on CD and DVD that the Met released last fall (most not otherwise commercially available); a coffee table book, “James Levine: 40 Years at the Metropolitan Opera” (Amadeus Press); and a new documentary in the “American Masters” series that will be aired over PBS stations tonight.

The bitter part is Levine’s health, his back problems and who knows what other issues that have caused him to miss numerous performances and forced him to resign his music directorship of the Boston Symphony this year.

Susan Froemke’s “James Levine: America’s Maestro” is a portrait of Levine the musician, not the man who has always greatly guarded his private life. Most of the film was shot around rehearsals of a production of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” with Plácido Domingo, a concert by the Met’s orchestra of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and a performance of Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride” at the Juilliard School with young artists. There are also the obligatory historical bits, and they too are pleasure, even if Levine's fashion sense has always been terrible.

Watching Levine work is an inspiration and an education. An hour is too short. I hope that this documentary finds its way on DVD generously bursting with rehearsal outtakes.

-- Mark Swed