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Levin to Music Dept.: “It’s About Performance.”


Yehudi Wyner, John Harbison, Robert Levin, Bernard Rands
Yehudi Wyner, John Harbison, Robert Levin, Bernard Rands (BMInt staff photo)

To mark his retirement from the University, pianist, educator, improviser, composer, editor and Dwight P. Robinson, Jr. Professor of Music at Harvard, Robert Levin presented on Sunday afternoon at Sanders Theatre a high-risk and thoroughly entertaining retirement recital of works dedicated to him by equally esteemed living composers. The house was nearly full (no small tribute in itself, given the programming) with a triumvirate of the four composers represented in the program present and sitting together (forming a triangle, naturally) in the center of the hall: Yehudi Wyner, John Harbison, and Bernard Rands. The fourth composer on the program, Hans Peter Türk, was not there in person, but in spirit, and he provided a touching letter of dedication to Levin, part of which is quoted below. Levin’s own written introduction to the program read, in part:

Alban Berg asserted that new music should be performed as if it were old, and old as if it were new. I have devoted my musical life to dramatic, volatile communication, seeking ways of conveying tenderness, ecstasy, anguish, and terror through the sounds of the past and present. Without a sense of risk, musical performance is little more than ritual. The stakes must be high, and whether the evening ends with the listener shattered or ebullient, nothing shall henceforth be the same.

Yehudi Wyner’s Stracchio Vecchio (1992) was an excellent starter for the program, a relaxed, wistful and probing little ragtime of a piece. No pun intended, but. Wyner’s quite entertaining notes described the work, self-deprecatingly-but-with-a-smile as:

An old rag. Also one of the common cries at the great flea market in Rome, the porta portese. The shoddy material that comprises this piece fell off some fabric I was fashioning for Trapunto Junction, the Boston Symphony Commission. Robert Levin, who loves sleazy modulations, seemed to be in mind as I stitched and darned; so I dedicated the piece to him.

In Straccio Vecchio, I was sure (but only for a moment) that  Wyner was quoting a little Beethoven…the slow movement to the Moonlight Sonata? or the Pastorale Sonata? But the moments were too fleeting to be sure of anything, and there may have been no intended reference at all.

For the next piece, who could argue with following a starter with a little dish of pasta? Wyner’s notes continued:

Sauce 180 (1995): Music 180 is the exalted chamber music class at Harvard, whose eminent alumni include Yo-Yo Ma, Lynn Chang, James Buswell, Max Levinson, and Christopher Taylor. For these past years, the class has been guided by Robert Levin (with Dan Stepner), and to celebrate the conclusion of a successful fall semester in 1994, Levin was giving a party for all participants. He proposed “a pasta Party” with homemade sauce, rich with “fragrance and unctuousness.” The key words stuck in my mind and I wrote this fragrant and unctuous little song to the text, “fragrance and unctuousness.” The piano piece is the song without the extreme unction of the text. PS. Although invited I was unable to attend the party, so can give no opinion about the sauce.

I was expecting that Sauce 180 would be in 3/4 meter, or perhaps 9/8, what with all the divisional options provided in the title number. Instead, it was a pleasant 4/4 with a lot of emphasis on an accented 2nd beat with hardly a 3rd (thus, a little syncopation). In any case, the composer was clearly having fun. Levin, too. But I think we in the audience got the most satisfaction from this jazzy, original (red) saucy little recipe, and Levin’s spicy, al dente presentation. Delicious.

Mano a Mano (1994):

The composition of Mano a Mano was precipitated by a frightening incident. My friend Robert Levin took a fall and injured a hand, and the immediate prognosis was unclear. He made a rapid recovery, however, and was able to resume his performance wizardry in a short time.

With the 3rd short piece, Mano a Mano, the music became jazzier, more syncopated, more dissonant (more of everything). The work was written almost as a challenge but really more as a celebration and a sigh of relief for the pianist after he suffered what some thought might become a debilitating accident on the ice. Or, in Wyner’s case here, a winking sigh of relief, as this is a challenging piece to be sure, requiring some serious deftness of hands (all over the keyboard) and ear, not to mention concentration, to pull off. Levin (with Wyner as co-conspirator) made it sound improvised, despite our watching him (Levin) focus on a printed score. More from Wyner’s notes…

Mano a Mano in its original form was preceded by a short recitative—Mano caduta (fallen hand)—alluding to the accident. The “text” goes:

Bobby’s injury is minor

And it could have been much worse.

It could have been major,

A manual apocalypse!

With abuse it could augment;

With care it could diminish,

Not dominate his life!

And now we shall see

The signs of true recovery.

Can you play this?

It’s the true test…

— Yehudi Wyner, February 24, 2013

As we moved into the work, a fugal-sounding section that seemed to be built around a winding, atonal subject, gradually increased in intensity and texture, and had Levin bobbing and weaving at the keyboard, before he ended the piece in a whisper (no knockout) and silence, drawing audible sighs before applause. A very pleased Wyner was invited to stand and be warmly acknowledged by the audience as well as Levin.

As to the test? Why yes, Levin could play this. He made it fun, engaging contemporary music, seriously delightful.

About his 2nd Sonata, Harbison wrote:

My Piano Sonata No. 2 was completed at Civitella Ranieri, near Perugia, in May 2001. It was long in the works. In 1994 I made a handwritten contract with Robert Levin, promising delivery of a sonata in 1995, at which point he would pay me $1. Much intervened, and the actual time of composition…was a turbulent period… In January 2001 I sent off a copy of the sonata with an odd feeling that something about the piece was missing. But such a feeling is not so unusual, and I went off to Civitella Ranieri intending to work on my Fourth String Quartet. During very late nights I began to hear what the Sonata was missing—no less the heart, the mysterious center of the piece. The final variation movement does not “resolve” the sonata, but it opens it up by taking it inward… This piece includes immediate, rhetorical, explicit music with more reticent, conflicted music, and its character derives from the tension between them. In entrusting it to a dear friend and musician of incomparable gifts I had a singular sense of its being complete even before it is heard.

In Levin’s performance on Sunday, a muscular, angular opening movement, Intrada, sounded downright American, post-Copland. Lots of big, wide-open sonorities, as well as so many 2nds, octaves, and ninths (I believe) formed the terrain, leading to a softer, pedaled middle section, with bells and chimes. Overall, there seemed to be a mysterious questioning to this music and this interpretation.

The Aria introduction opened with a tender plea of rich, cool, quiet chords, but with immediate signs of the explosiveness and anger that would follow. There was rubato, lots of it. The main theme, an arching, singing dotted rhythm melodic line, climbed, fell (with increased harmonic rhythm), then rose again, only to then descend (now devoid of the dotted rhythm, with more poignancy and no small amount of resignation and sorrow), preceding outbursts of angry dialogues in octaves over all the many registers of the piano. The return of the theme sounded even more resigned, sad, beautifully rendered, with what seemed (to me) to be some wistful looking back (and now across the ocean) at Mahler, Webern, Schoenberg.

Levin played the Ricercar with an appropriate robust thunkiness. This is one ugly theme (to be fair, like many of Beethoven’s), but one that stays with you like a loyal friend, or your pug. Three semi-quavers lead to a repeated note (seven times, more in later iterations) hammered out before straying off in various triplet directions on its last repetition, then developed in all sorts of manners fugal, poly-rhythmically as well as polyphonically. As this complex movement unfolded, Levin’s playing went wonderfully bonkers, honky-tonk-like and jazzy, with brittle ‘etude’ effects spanning the keyboard, a virtuosic display, but one serious and angry, just contained.

While not invited (but not unwelcome, though I had no say in the matter) this theme was hammering away in my head during the intermission and after the performance. If I had a better ear, maybe the aria theme would have come knocking instead, but humming that while walking through Harvard Yard would have been a real challenge and would have yielded even stranger looks from passersby. Hmm. Hum-worthy Harbison…

The final movement, Variazioni, did—as contracted by the composer and delivered by Levin—pull things inward. Levin’s opening statement was played without sostenuto pedal, but with wonderful harmonics, as some notes were released while others held, setting a tone. Each variation was then conceived and executed with individual character and mood, a “hand-crossing” variation especially gorgeous in its sound. Another quiet ending. And more shared appreciation between performer, composer, and audience.

In his letter of February 27, 2013, Hans Peter Türk expressed his admiration for Mr. Levin and his heartfelt gratitude for Levin’s friendship and continued support and communication with Türk’s wife Gerda during her final months of life:

My piano composition Träume (Dreams), that you will premiere at Harvard University, is dedicated to you, in an attempt to convey the gratitude my late wife could no longer personally express. The title is borrowed from one of her notebooks, in which she tried to record her dreams. The piece is meant to be played as freely as possible, appealing at the end to your unsurpassed mastery of improvisation. Some of the prescribed tones and rhythms lend themselves to improvisation, creating the impression of bells chiming, as such were the contents of Gerda’s last dream, noted in the booklet mentioned above.

The premiere, by Levin, was full of sentiment (but not played sentimentally). The opening melody in minor mode was as a stately lullaby. But in the center of the work, the music became something terrible. It would have given Rimsky-Korsakov the shudders, sounding like a Flight of the Bumblebee on steroids, all gone dark, with a bumble bee the size of a locomotive. Levin’s hands occasionally seemed pinned to the extremities of the keyboard, extracting as much he could from the music and these outer registers, then all the registers, then all moved towards quietness. It was dreamlike music making, full of anger, sorrow, sadness, and beauty. It was one of those pieces, and performances, that makes you turn to your fellow audience members, total strangers, to register and share (unspoken) your reaction and theirs. After loud applause, many were responding with the same basic dumbfounded palindrome, voiced silently, deferentially: “Wow…”

About his Preludes, Rands has written that:

The creative challenge was to compose a work whose 12 sections are integrated into a formal whole at the same time as each Prelude has its own formal integrity and thus can be selected and performed separately from the others. Robert Levin’s experience, skill and knowledge of early keyboard music(s) was influential in determining the spirit and character of each Prelude. This concern gave rise to an acrostic on the pianist’s name:

  1. Ricercare
  2. Ostinato
  3. Bordone
  4. Elegia (in memoriam Lucian Berio)
  5. Ritornello
  6. Toccata
  7. Durezza
  8. Lamento
  9. Emiolia
  10. Villanella
  11. Istampita
  12. Notturno (in Memoriam Don Martino)

When Debussy completed his Preludes he wrote that he thought they would take their place ‘to the left of Schumann and to the right of Chopin.’ I would suggest that mine are to the left of Bill Evans and to the right of Oscar Petersen, without implying any specific jazz influence but simply that the work of those two great jazz composer/pianists has always been a joy to me.

The first prelude, Ricercar, had me recalling the episodic development of the theme from Mission Impossible, during those stress-induced, high-wire, quiet scenes from the show. This prelude and most of the others give Levin ample material to shine. What he did so well was to articulate and voice contrasting ideas and themes in such dramatically different ways. The Mission Impossible-like motif was presented quietly in the center of the keyboard, juxtaposed against sharp chords from outer registers. As the motif grew in intensity (became paired, mirrored, developed) Levin was always careful to present the different ideas so differently. In exploiting the piano’s potential for different sounds, we were treated, somewhat ironically, to something more symphonic in nature.

This maximum contrast and careful voicing continued throughout the Preludes. While rhythm was always important, rhythm as a driving force was not always paramount. The works then became more studies in sound. And silence. The 2nd Prelude didn’t end! It was just over. No small feat to pull off.

Rhythm did play more of a role in driving the 3rd Prelude forward, but here I found Levin’s playing to be a little forced, bangy. Maybe that was intended.

The 4th Prelude ended with what likely the quietest note I’ve ever heard played. Levin commanded a 20 second silence from the audience (not a whisper from a soul) before launching into the brittle, icy sounds of the 5th.

In the 7th Prelude, Lamento, Levin punctuated the inner voice, projecting the line with alternating hands, between having to reach out to the extremities of the keyboard to play chords and notes at triple pianissimo. Apparently, he didn’t need an extra pair of arms to pull this off. Again, he commanded some serious silence at the end of this beautiful little piece.

In the 9th Prelude, Emiola, perhaps the most Debussy-like of the group along with the final Prelude, we were treated to a broader palette of colors and sounds (if not outright fireworks, ala Debussy) and rhythms (hemiolas, too, naturally), and much sharp punctuation across the keyboard, all gently accompanied by a shrill fan belt from the heating system acting up. This piece, too, ended without apparent end.

We discovered that the 10th Prelude, Villanella, was more tonal than we might have thought, when a fellow’s phone chimed in at a perfect fifth over an apparent tonic.

The Notturno (in Memoriam Don Martino), the final prelude, was a study in projected introversion (if that’s possible), built over an ostinato between E-flat and F, and more exploration of sounds from the outer limits of the keyboard. It seemed full of mystery and reverence. And as before, the piece, and the Preludes as a whole, were no more. And appropriate end without ending to this recital.

Levin-recital_0217bbbwRands was warmly acknowledged, and Levin did come back on stage to share some words before a brief encore. He stated that he was proud to have worked throughout his career to have students’ works performed, not just evaluated.  He challenged the audience to equate contemporary music with the racetrack, to bet on a racehorse. While a student at Harvard, he bet on some then unknown horses, including John Harbison.

It was fitting that he should then play a short piece, one of 29 tiny Fireflies composed in five sets by his neighbor, Thomas Oboe Lee, with one set dedicated to Robert Levin. We were told to be ashamed if we did not recognize the tune quoted in the piece. I’m afraid I did not.

In any case, the encore was played without focus and over-pedaled. Levin was already out the door, it seemed. But it didn’t matter, other than to offer clearer perspective on the level of concentration and dramatic coherence that was made so evident in the previous nearly two hours of intense, challenging music-making. Bravo, Levin!

Jim McDonald has masters degrees in arts administration and piano performance from the University of Iowa, where he studied with John Simms. He has presented chamber music for 25 years.


2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. If I remember correctly, the encore was a T.O.Lee paraphrase of Chopin’s Prelude no.7 in A.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — January 30, 2014 at 1:04 pm

  2. The Chopin prelude evoked is #15 in D-flat major (also the key of Lee’s Firefly), the so-called “Raindrop.”

    Comment by Robert Levin — February 1, 2014 at 10:34 am

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