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After Nearly 3 Decades With The Baton, OKC Philharmonic Conductor Joel Levine Reflects On Career

Richard Bassett
Joel Levine In Civic Center Music Library

Maestro Joel Levine is stepping down as Music Director of the Oklahoma City Philharmonic. His career includes thirty years with the orchestra and, recently, a battle with cancer. KGOU’s Richard Bassett sat down with Levine ahead of his upcoming farewell concert to discuss his past and future role with the Philharmonic.


Richard Bassett: Joel Levine settles into the music library at the Oklahoma City Civic Center. The room is filled with shelves of old quarter-inch tapes and CDs. Decades-old pictures, posters and programs lean up against the wall.

Joel Levine: We have hundreds of photographs of the orchestra going all the way back to 1938.

Bassett: They’re all mementos to preserve the history of classical music in Oklahoma City. A history Joel Levine played a huge role in shaping.

Levine: We have all kinds of stuff sitting around here. And my job is to organize and label it.

Bassett: Originally from New Jersey, Levine has been Music Director and conductor of the Oklahoma City Philharmonic since 1989 when he helped found the orchestra.

And now, he’s retiring from the position. Levine’s farewell concert is tomorrow night. It’s a performance that was delayed for six months…

Sitting with perfect posture, the 70-year old Levine told me with a laugh that chemotherapy had affected his memory, so I shouldn’t expect any interesting anecdotes.

That was something that turned out not to be true… Levine had a lot to say about his career and how he found the inspiration to stay positive during a lengthy battle with cancer…

Levine: I was in broadcasting and I saw an announcer who had been brought in to organize the new station sound. It had switched formats to a different sound and he was the expert. And he and the station manager were always fighting. They didn't agree. And they were having a terrible fight one day. Loud yelling in a soundproof studio that I could hear through a very thick door. And then suddenly it was time for this guy's shift. The program guy was to now get on the air, and oh by the way he had cancer and he had about four months to live. So he goes steaming out the door where he had a fight, slams the studio door shut for his show. The red light comes on and he says, "Good morning everybody. How are you? What a beautiful day it is today. We're going to listen to..." And he just launched into his program. And when he spun the first record, I was so stunned watching him through the glass. I must have been 20 years old. I opened the door to his studio and I said, "Paul, how did you just do that? The fight and the screaming and the cancer." And he looked at me as if, you know, you silly kid, and he said, "I'm a professional." He was angry that I asked how he could do it. He said I'm a professional. And so when you hear that at 20 years old and then you know you're going through your career and you're having a day when perhaps you're not feeling well or just before you walk out on stage you get a piece of bad news or something or other. You walk out there on that stage and you deliver.

Bassett: Did that have any effect on you recently? I know that your farewell concert was originally scheduled for, what was it, last spring?

Levine: Yes.

Bassett: Was it twice now or just once?

Levine: Just once so far. If I do it on November 3rd it will have been once. No, it was one postponement because of health issues, because of cancer.

Bassett: How are you feeling now?

Levine: I'm feeling great.

Bassett: That's great to hear.

Levine: It took a while though. It was a year. It was, it was one full year. I remember when the diagnosis happened, one of the nurses said, "Well just think in a year this will all be over." And I you know I snapped around and said, "A year?" And I thought she was crazy but that's what it took.

Bassett: Did that do anything to change your perception on music or anything?

Levine: Well it certainly makes you more aware of composers who, you know, we think of them in terms of their incredible output, their music. And then if you read about their lives sometimes you realize that they were writing some of the happiest music on earth at times when they were undergoing some of the greatest personal tragedies one could undergo. I mean, Beethoven was going deaf at the time he wrote some of his greatest and and in some cases happiest music. You just have to say I'm a pro. I got my diagnosis a year ago but I had a concert, I don't know, six months later, five months later. And I went out there and I had the greatest time of my life because I knew that when I walked off that podium the next day would start chemo. So you just do, you do your job.

Bassett: So you conducted music all around the world and performed with a cast of distinct classical musicians. What are some moments good or bad that stuck out to you the most?

Levine: That's a fun question. I think at the top of the list would be the second time that I conducted for Ella Fitzgerald, the great jazz artist of course. She came here and the next year I guest conducted her at another orchestra. They had heard that she liked me, so I had the chance to work with her again. And so when I walked up to her, I figured I'd have to reintroduce myself. Let's face it she's a legend who worked with thousands of musicians. And she said, "Joel Levine we meet again," and I thought that she even remembers my name has made the rest of my life...

Bassett: What do you see the future holding for the Oklahoma City Philharmonic?

Levine: Well are we are reaping the benefits of a conductor search, a music director search, and I wasn't part of the process but I got to watch the candidates come. The good fortune is that the search produced the right result. He's been embraced by the community and he is embracing the community. The audience is having a great time. They're showing up in huge numbers. So I would say that the future of classical music in Oklahoma City is solid. And people say to me sometimes, you know, "What's it like? Isn't it, isn't it strange to be sitting out in the audience?" And my response is, no, it isn't strange. It's very rewarding you know to see after working to build and maintain an orchestra for all this amount of time that that you get to step away from it and listen to it out front. By the way, and it always sounds better when you step away from it and listen to it out front because you get, you get the full blend of the orchestra that you don't always get standing on the podium. Conductor doesn't always have the best seat in the house. So I get to I get to enjoy it.

Bassett: So I know it's not going to be your last performance, as you said you will be doing the Christmas Show in the future.

Levine: Right. And maybe they'll invite me back to do something. That's a hint that they'll invite me back. You know I'm still asked to guest conduct. So I expect to keep the baton. I'm not going to frame it and put it on the wall. But I'm at a point in my life where I don't want lots and lots of pressure. I don't need it. Because I've carried it for a long time. I started conducting when I was 16 and I'm 70. So that's, you know. And every time you walk out there on that stage you're auditioning essentially for the audience and the orchestra to say, "OK, we'd like to see him again." And that's a heavy burden. It's a big responsibility and if you're conducting, I mean, people have paid to see your performance. People have paid to come see you. So you owe it to them to perform at a very high level.

Bassett: Joel Levine plans to do just that during his farewell concert. Among the pieces he selected for the performance are Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 4” and “Boléro” by Ravel - a work that Levine described as a show off piece for the orchestra. Both of these pieces were performed during the Philharmonic’s inaugural concert back in 1989.

Credit Richard Bassett / KGOU
Joel Levine Statue

And although Levine’s career has reached its final stanza, he won’t be forgotten. He was recently named Music Director Emeritus of the Philharmonic, and a bronze statue of him rests in front of the Oklahoma City Civic Center, which will tower above the steps of its entrance for decades to come.

As a community-supported news organization, KGOU relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online, or by contacting our Membership department.

Richard is a graduate of The Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences in Arizona. He spent three years working for Studiomedia Recording Company in Chicago, where he furthered his audio engineering education. After one too many battles with the snow and the cold, Richard returned home and enrolled in The University of Oklahoma. He has a bachelor's degree in anthropology and graduate study in Professional Writing.
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