"In the years since its inception, the National Endowment for the Arts has contributed enormously to the health and growth of the arts in the United States. It is a great honor for me to be among the first recipients of this award, and an honor to the art form itself that the NEA is recognizing the important place of opera in the artistic life of this country."
Since he first took the podium at the Metropolitan Opera in 1971, James Levine has conducted almost 2,500 performances there -- a record number -- and his repertoire is equally staggering: 85 operas. He is noted for his collaboration with singers, but equally important is his work with the Met orchestra, which he has fine-tuned into one of the world's leading ensembles.
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1943, Levine excelled as a pianist even in childhood. Setting his course as a conductor, he graduated from Juilliard in 1964, and in that same year was invited by George Szell to join the Cleveland Orchestra as the youngest assistant conductor in its long history. Over the next several years, he led many orchestras, including the Metropolitan Opera's, and in 1975 became the company's music director. He has led Met premieres of works by numerous composers, including Mozart, Verdi, Stravinsky, Berg, Schoenberg, Rossini, Berlioz and Weill, as well as the world premieres of two American operas, John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles and John Harbison's The Great Gatsby. While maintaining his position at the Met, Levine has continued to work as an accompanist and chamber musician and has led orchestras around the world. From 1973 to 1993, he was music director of the Ravinia Festival, the summer residence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; from 1999 to 2004, he was chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic. In 2004, Levine became music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a post he continues to hold. With the BSO, he has introduced new works by such composers as Elliott Carter, William Bolcom, Milton Babbitt, Charles Wuorinen and John Harbison. Among the numerous awards Levine has received are the Gold Medal for Service to Humanity from the National Institute of Social Sciences, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters' 2005 award for Distinguished Service to the Arts. In 1997, he was given the National Medal of Arts and, in 2003, he was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors.