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“Alban Berg asserted that new music should be performed as if it were old, and old as if it were new,” read the first line of Robert Levin’s brief note to the audience at his farewell concert, which took place this past Sunday afternoon in Sanders Theatre. The retiring Harvard professor has been known throughout his career for making music from the Classical period fresh and relevant. However, Sunday’s recital consisted instead of a program filled with pieces composed for Levin by four living composers: Yehudi Wyner, John Harbison, Hans Peter Türk (a world premiere), and Bernard Rands, plus an encore consisting of a piece by Levin’s “next-door neighbor” Thomas Oboe Lee.
It’s not every day that a matinee concert populated by a mostly white-haired audience and consisting entirely of music written in the past 23 years ends in a standing ovation. The audience’s reaction was only in part in appreciation of his performance—it also showed the listeners’ dedication to being challenged by an artist they trust.
Each piece elicited timid yet appreciative applause at its conclusion, with the Harbison getting a few whistles by virtue of its technical complexity and local origins (Harbison is a Harvard grad and teaches at MIT). Levin’s performances, all formidable, did not always provide these recent compositions with the vivacity that they always bring to music written three centuries ago. But this may not have always been his fault. The slower and more inward sections, especially much of the “Aria” in Harbison’s “Piano Sonata No. 2” and the early passages of Türk’s “Träume,” were sometimes vague and not very compelling. However, the virtuosic moments in Harbison’s “Ricercar,” as well as the bumblebee-esque middle sections of “Träume,” came off very effectively. Levin avoided an overly clear and dry sound, instead choosing to pedal the passages with many rapid notes. The result was a bellowing wave of sound punctuated by clear, ringing intermediate tones.
Rands’ 12 Preludes, in which each movement consisted of a canonical musical form beginning with a letter from Levin’s name (“Ricercare,” “Ostinato,” “Bordone,” etc.) was last on the program. Levin gave each of the twelve movements its own color on the piano and its own pace in unfolding. Before Levin had set his hands down after the collection’s closing “Notturno,” the audience jumped in to show its approval of the nuanced performance.
However, they stood and cheered far more at Levin’s curtain call, after which he greeted them with a bit of advice, speaking about the importance of the unions between composers and performers. Levin called on performers to “choose a composer and play him” like a “horse at the racetrack” and see where they go: “Perhaps he will become a member of the pantheon of classical music, perhaps not,” Levin said. “When John Harbison and I were classmates at Harvard, he was one of those horses I bet on.”
Levin’s farewell concert represented a look forward, an emblem of what he thinks performers in a long musical tradition should consider relevant and important. The concert was a way of calling on current and future Harvard classical music students, whom he will no longer have the opportunity to teach and who were not the majority of the audience, to remember that new music is still being written and that the creation of new music is a constant process. Levin’s programing choices were unexpected and unusual for a farewell concert. However, his decision shows the respect he has for his audience and the freedom they have, in turn, awarded him.
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