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Classical Radio Grapples with Recordings of Accused Conductors

To play or not to play? (David C. Barnett / ideastream)

To play or not to play?  That’s the question for classical music radio.  Recent sexual assault allegations against famous orchestra conductors James Levine and Charles Dutoit have left station managers wondering what to do with their recordings.  Programmers across the country, including ideastream’s WCLV, are divided over how to react.

When WCLV program director Bill O’Connell recently played an excerpt from a Metropolitan Opera recording for his afternoon program, he told listeners about the composer and the vocalist, but he made no mention that the performance was conducted by famed maestro James Levine.

References to Levine and his music are nearly gone from the Cleveland station following allegations of sexual abuse with music students dating back to the 1960s. Station manager Jenny Northern said WCLV also avoids conductor Charles Dutoit after a number of sexual assault allegations against him.

WCLV's Jenny Northern: "I do think that people turn to classical music in times of distress.  It's a place that doesn’t often show an ugly side." (image / ideastream)

"We’re suspending the broadcasting of their works for the most part, and we’re trying to see what happens," she said.  "Is there due process?  Will there be charges actually brought?  What’s the situation?"

Joe Goetz is also grappling with this as music director of WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. 

"There has been a very big buzz to say the least, mainly in internet chat circles when the Levine news came out," he said. 

Goetz recalled that the controversy erupted less than two hours after Levine wrapped up a prominent live performance on the Metropolitan Opera’s radio season opener, last month.  Radio station peers around the country immediately weighed in. 

"Responses varied quite widely from people who were shunning Levine completely to people who said, 'well, maybe we’ll still play his recordings, but not mention that he’s the conductor,' to people who said, 'well, how can you possibly erase an incredible career’s-worth of music?"'

The accusations against Charles Dutoit hit close to home for this Indiana station.  One of his accusers, award-winning soprano Sylvia McNair, was a long-time teacher on the Bloomington campus.

"She’s recently retired," said Goetz.   "But, she’s still a really active member of the music community here and it would have been a real slap, in her face, I think, to continue to feature his recordings given what he allegedly did to her."

But, not all broadcasters agree.  James Reel is classical music director of Arizona Public Media in Tucson.

"I have not made any changes to my schedules as a result of the scandals," he said.   "And I am continuing to play the recordings of guys like James Levine on a regular basis.  And I’ve received not one comment from a listener, pro or con."

And he adds there’s nothing that compels him morally or legally to do otherwise.

"I’m not James Levine’s employer, I’m not Charles Dutoit’s boss, I’m not their jury," he said.  "And nothing I can do could have a direct, meaningful effect on them.  All that’s left is blacklisting, really." 

However things shake out, WCLV manager Jenny Northern in Cleveland worries that something’s been lost.

"I do think that people turn to classical music in times of distress," she said.  "It's a place that doesn’t often show an ugly side.  It’s disappointing.  And it’s sad." 

For Joe Goetz in Indiana, the recently exposed ugly side, has led to something more positive.

"It’s really given me the chance to explore other, lesser-known recordings that I might have overlooked before," he said.  "I think that’s actually a good thing, to not always lean on the crutches of these monumental, well-recorded conductors." 

And that ushers in an opportunity for different conductors to be heard.

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.