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Violinist Gary Levinson and the Beethoven Sonata Cycle - exclusive interview

Andrew Sords

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Published: January 27, 2014 at 8:58 PM [UTC]

“Gary Levinson possesses an extraordinary and virtuosic technique, an admirable bow arm and an instinctive and expansive musicality which enables him to draw round and brilliant sounds, always in tune from his splendid instrument.”

Gary LevinsonSuch is the critical acclaim for the current Principal Associate Concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony. Mr. Levinson has been celebrated in the press for his solo and and orchestral career – including the New York Times stating “Levinson…the excellent violinist” – and now has added a new notch to his belt: Artistic Director for the Fort Worth Chamber Music Society. Born in St. Petersburg, Russia; a former student of Dorothy DeLay at Juilliard; and prizewinner in the Thibaud and Romano Romanini violin competitions, Mr. Levinson counts the New York Philharmonic as a previous employer. At this juncture in his career, Mr. Levinson recorded the Beethoven sonata cycle with pianist Daredjan Kakouberi for posterity – a recording showing off his burnished tone, dexterous facility and undeniable duo chemistry. With his characteristic directness and panache, Mr. Levinson shares with violinist Andrew Sords the recording process, his Beethoven sonata history, and accepting a major new role in the DFW classical music scene.

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Andrew Sords: As a child, what influenced your studies, and what do you remember about your lessons with Miss DeLay?

Gary Levinson: I am very lucky that both of my parents are terrific musicians, so I was never thrown off course, as the saying goes. My father, as one of the legendary double bass players, was surrounded by some of the finest conductors of the time, so we would have on any one evening Maestros Temirkanov, Neeme Jarvi, Zubin Mehta, Bella Davidovich and others at the house for dinner. It was a phenomenal environment in which to learn and absorb the true art of music. I learned as much from their jokes as their war stories! As I grew up, I began savoring my dad's record collection - a venerable treasure chest of the finest records available. It was my first musical meeting with Heifetz, Menuhin, Szeryng among many others, and it shaped my ear for the kind of style and tone I would demand of my playing.

AS: How has your view of the Beethoven sonata cycle changed from your Juilliard days?

GL: While at Juilliard, these sonatas served as a vehicle. The Strauss and Faure A major were, more or less stylistically speaking, showpieces (Strauss for his unabashed virtuosity, Faure A major for its sensuality), the Beethoven Sonatas have their foundation in classical literature. Thus I played a lot of the Kreutzer (No. 9), if for no reason other than to show off the treacherous opening, and the C minor Sonata no. 7. Both are powerful concerto-type works (Beethoven even marks 'Stylo Concertante' in the title page of the Kreutzer).

As I began to play more recitals, I became enamored of the early Sonatas. The style of No. 1, with its bravura opening (emanating from Mozart and Haydn, yet so unmistakably Beethoven), became a staple in my recital repertoire. And my Merkin Hall debut, with Miss DeLay in attendance, began with No. 4 (a minor), to her visible delight.

AS: Is there a particular violinist who influenced your interpretation?

GL: I would not say any one violinist influenced my interpretation. When I was preparing for the recording process, I did a lot of studying of the solo piano sonatas. This helped a lot - especially with the recitative writing in the last two sonatas. As I was working my way through the 32 piano sonatas, I began to realize that I was preparing for this recording from that very first encounter with the Oistrakh/Oborin Spring sonata. All those years have culminated in this recording.

AS: When did you first hear one of the sonatas, and which was it?

GL: I first heard the Spring Sonata performed by David Oistrakh when I was about 6. While it was not Oistrakh's best performance, I was taken by the give and take and the gamut of emotions he and Oborin were able to elicit in the performance. At the time, I thought the last movement with its imitative counterpoint was the height of humor.

AS: Are you touring with Baya and the Beethoven sonatas?

GL: We have played them a lot both before and after the set was recorded. I would like to play the cycle in one sitting, but while there has been some interest, we have yet to do it. That said, I never get tired of playing them.

AS: You are married to your collaborator - what are the pros and cons during the rehearsals?

GL: At the time of the recording, she was not yet married to me! From the moment we started performing together, I got the sense that we breathed together and shaped phrases that were quite magical. During rehearsal, we disagreed on a great many points of interpretation. However, we found a way to compromise, and as such, stand behind every note of our record. Compromise is a tough word to use when it comes to collaborative performance, but I feel like we had to come together and deliver a unified message with respect to our views on these works.

AS: Tell us about your fiddle...

GL: It is a golden period Stradivarius, and I absolutely adore the instrument in every way. Many Strads can be capricious and susceptible to weather changes (how could the venerable master foresee airplane travel and the dry re-circulated air within?), but not this one. It has no bad days, so it pushes me to truly strive for my best every time I pick it up. The fiddle is a partner, a friend and a teacher. It also has had a Hollywood-style history!

AS: You've accepted a post as the Artistic Director for the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth - what prompted this addition to an already busy DSO career?

GL: It came quite unexpectedly. As I learned more about the pieces already in place, the support of the board, and our mutual vision for a world class chamber music series, it was an offer I could not pass up.

AS: What Levinson “traits” can we expect in the Fort Worth series?

GL: First off, I am very lucky that I came into an enviable position with a superb board, a grateful, active audience and a very fine concert hall. My plan for the foreseeable future is to present top-tier groups, the best of ad-hoc ensemble players and at least one special event fitting the particular seasons. Thus, 2013-14, which is our Season of Reflection, has the Vermeer String Quartet performing the 'Seven Last Words of Christ' at the new Renzo Piano Pavillion in the Kimbell Art Museum. This combination of the new auditorium, the Vermeer performing again after discontinuing regular concertizing in 2008, the eight speakers delivering personal meditations, and the superb audio and video facilities at the venue should combine for THE bucket list concert.

The 2014-15 special event is already booked, and while I can't reveal it just yet, it will be a mind-blowing concert.

AS: What are your upcoming recording plans?

GL: In April, I am recording a disc of French Sonatas with Baya - the two Faure Sonatas and the Debussy. The latter is especially close to my heart; considering it would be his last work and he knew it, there is not a tinge of depression or philosophy in it. Instead, it is all about his prodigious color skills, incorporating blues into a classical medium and texture. What a world he creates in less than 15 minutes, especially the last riff at the end of the first movement (Jimi Hendrix would be proud!)

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