Yale School of Music professor Jesse Levine, a renowned violist and conductor who taught at Yale for the past quarter-century, died Nov. 11 at his home in New Haven. He was 68.
Levine’s death followed a long fight with pancreatic cancer, according to a School of Music obituary released Monday.
“At his core, he was one of the warmest, most generous souls I have ever met — and this quality came through in the rich, singing tone he produced on the viola, in the sincerity of his commitment to teaching, and in his exuberance and passion for life,” said Jacob Adams MUS ’07, a former student.
Born in the Bronx in 1940, Levine, a professor of viola and chamber music and coordinator of the string department at the Yale School of Music, grew up surrounded by music. His father David was a cellist, and Levine himself began playing the viola at an early age.
Levine studied at Mannes College of Music, now Mannes College The New School for Music, in Manhattan. He also traveled to Monaco to study conducting with Igor Markevitch, a Ukrainian composer and conductor.
Levine’s early career included performing as the principal violist with Russian composer Igor Stravinsky at the annual summer Tanglewood Music Festival and traveling to Argentina as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. State Department. He used his first paychecks from a job with the Harry Belafonte show in New York to buy the viola he would use for the rest of his career.
During his career, Levine served as the music director of multiple orchestras, most recently the New Britain Symphony Orchestra, which he conducted for 21 years. He was also the principal violist for the Buffalo, Dallas, Baltimore and New Jersey symphony orchestras.
Levine, who was described by his longtime friend and colleague Ezra Laderman, former dean of the School of Music, as a “champion of new music,” spent 20 years guest-conducting for the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra in its annual North American New Music Festival.
“His career embraced a lot of conducting and performing of world premiers of young, unknown performers,” Laderman said in an interview. “He ran a program that was very, very successful, where they only did the avant-garde.”
“Above everything else, he was truly a great violist,” Laderman said.
At Yale, Levine made his mark as a teacher. Jessica Chang ’09 said Levine changed her life: Because of his influence, she became a music major, spent three of the past four summers playing music and is now applying to music graduate programs.
“He took me seriously even though I didn’t,” Chang said. “Jesse really gave me music, and I owe him a lot.”
Adams described Levine as “a physically intimidating man — big and tall with a booming voice and demanding musical convictions.” Levine’s reputation for strictness, he said in an e-mail, was complimented by his fatherly concern for students’ wellbeing.
Levine is survived by his wife, Jill Pellett Levine; two sons, Alexander and Josh; and his sister, Lisa Nowakowski.
While funeral arrangements were not mentioned in the School of Music obituary, there will be a memorial concert held this spring.