Jonathan Levin, Pianist in Review
Jonathan Levin, piano
Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
September 20, 2016
It was a treat on every level to hear young pianist Jonathan Levin in his New York solo recital debut this week. To start with, the program itself, entitled “American Portraits,” was an educational and thematically interesting sampling of some great (and in some cases neglected) music. Despite the “American” theme – or perhaps because of it – there was a great diversity of musical voice. There were large works by some of the great forces in American music history, George Gershwin (1898-1937), William Grant Still (1895-1978, “The Dean of African-American Music” as he is often called), and George Walker (b. 1922, thankfully still with us today). There were smaller works by J. Mark Stambaugh (a teacher of Mr. Levin’s at the Manhattan School of Music), Caroline Shaw (b. 1982, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013), and Vladimir Drozdoff (1882-1960), as well as arrangements and improvisations by Jonathan Levin himself. One had the sense that each work had been chosen by Mr. Levin (or arranged, as the case may be) with loving care, with nothing crammed in just to fit a theme. Each work was played with a strong sense of commitment and feeling, and Mr. Levin emerged as much more than a pianist, but a musician with a fine mind and enormously promising creative energy.
To open, Mr. Levin played his own showy arrangement of Jerome Kern’s “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” from Showboat. It was a warm and friendly beginning, with a very espressivo treatment of the “Fish gotta swim” line preceded by much Lisztian froth (with maybe a pinch of Earl Wild in inspiration). I love hearing such arrangements played by their arrangers, as they show so much about the artist’s own love of the music. Mr. Levin’s settings were quite good. There may be opportunities for publication here, as many pianists are not as versatile as Mr. Levin but wish to add show-tune elements to their programs (just look at the increasing appearance of Earl Wild’s Gershwin transcriptions on classical programs).
Another Levin arrangement based on Richard Rodgers’ “Falling in Love with Love” (from The Boys from Syracuse) opened the second half and was similarly exuberant and effective. The penultimate piece of the evening (before Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue) was Mr. Levin’s “Scriabin-type” (in his own words) arrangement of Cole Porter’s “So In Love” from Kiss Me Kate. I was just jotting down the word “overblown” in my notes about this particular elaboration when the audience burst forth with ecstatic applause, including my rapt concert companion. Oscar Wilde’s bon mot “Nothing succeeds like excess” popped to mind – I was clearly outvoted by the rest of the audience, who seemed to adore it.
In addition to these arrangements, Mr. Levin played his own “Improvisations on a Southern Folk Melody” – a fascinating work of intelligence, sensitivity, and bravura. In one of the informal comments to the audience, the pianist pointed out modestly that he doesn’t really consider himself a composer, but here I must take exception. What he has improvised is every bit as worthy as what is unabashedly exhibited as composition these days by those with no greater ability; I don’t wish to jinx things, however, so since he has done so well so far by “not really composing” may he simply continue to “not really compose” until he amasses a large collection of non-compositions that we can all enjoy!
Among the notable large works on the program, I was particularly grateful for the inclusion of George Walker’s Sonata No. 1, a wonderful but underplayed work by one of the greats of American music and a fine pianist himself as well. With the treatment of folk themes in it, it has all the Americana feel of so much music by Aaron Copland but with a distinctly individual intelligence behind it all and a brilliant idiomatic pianism about it. The slow movement, a set of variations based on “O Bury Me Beneath the Willow” is a gem of devastating beauty. Hats off to Mr. Levin for choosing this Sonata and for tackling all its thorny challenges – and by memory.
The next work necessitated a score, that of Caroline Shaw’s composition Gustave de Gray, an evocation of the photography of de Gray with considerable help from a Chopin Mazurka (Op. 17, No. 4), couched poetically in improvisatory musical frames by Ms. Shaw. It was surprising just how much of the Mazurka was used in Shaw’s piece – not so much a quotation as nearly the entire piece – but, framed with a twenty-first century musical introduction and conclusion, it gave the overall effect of entering a time warp or stepping in and out of a daguerreotype.
William Grant Still’s Three Visions on the second half were a worthy addition, particularly the very dreamy centerpiece, “Summerland,” played with gentle lyricism. Mr. Levin lavished it with care, and it was transcendent. Levin is a good advocate for a composer who is still (no pun intended) underappreciated. The opening “Dark Horsemen” was driving and dark, and the third (closing) movement “Radiant Pinnacle” was lovely, if not quite as “radiant” as the gem of a central movement.
J. Mark Stambaugh’s miniature A Waltz Conspiracy was a cryptic bit of fun – clearly some Waltz elements and some darkly encroaching musical “conspiracy” – followed by Vladimir Drozdoff’s more involved piece, Reflections at Chopin’s Urn. The latter took the listener on a twentieth century tour through Chopin’s Sonata No. 3, through a more episodic technique than in Ms. Shaw’s work, but still with recognizable sections of music – all thought-provoking, and handled well by Mr. Levin.
The recital closed with a rousing rendition of Rhapsody in Blue. Mr. Levin definitely had fun with the piece, adding some bravura touches here and there. Showmanship, intelligence, more than ample pianism, and sensitive musicality are all wrapped up in one package in this young artist, so he should do quite well in his career. The cheering audience earned an encore of “I’ve got Rhythm.” It was an upbeat finish to a highly successful debut recital.