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Pianist Robert Levin with the OrchestraBY: Dan Rottenberg 01.25.2010
Last weekend’s unexpected treat was the pianist Robert Levin, a Harvard humanities professor endowed with the mind of a composer as well as a very entertaining teacher, who took the Philadelphia Orchestra’s audience on an exuberant journey inside Mozart’s mind.
Philadelphia Orchestra: All Mozart Program. Incidental Music from Thamos, King of Egypt; Piano Concerto #18 in B-flat major, K. 456; Symphony No. 40 in G. minor, K. 550. Nicholas McGegan, conductor; Robert Levin, piano. (215) 893-1999 or www.philorch.org.
Inside Mozart’s brainDAN ROTTENBERG
The financial news from the Philadelphia Orchestra’s front office is so grim these days that it’s easy to forget what a good time the Orchestra itself is still capable of providing. Last weekend’s unexpected treat was the pianist Robert Levin, a Harvard humanities professor endowed with the mind of a composer as well as a very entertaining teacher. Levin promptly turned Verizon Hall into his own personal classroom and effectively took the audience on an exuberant journey inside the mind of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Unlike piano virtuosos— who typically sit sideways to the audience at the front of the stage, the better to display their fancy finger work (at last to the left side of the audience)— Levin positioned his piano among the instruments, facing outward to the audience, so that only the musicians (and a few folks in the Conductor’s Circle behind the stage) could see Levin at all. This arrangement, Levin explained to the audience, was what Mozart preferred: It enables the woodwinds in the rear to hear the piano, which they can’t ordinarily do.
Levin further explained that he removed the lid from the piano for the same reason. Ultimately, he told the audience, “Music is all about communication.”
His subsequent performance of Mozart’s Concerto No. 18 was indeed notable for its unity between orchestra and piano, as well as for Levin’s forte: improvised cadenzas as Levin imagines Mozart might have created himself. Since most of us in the audience couldn’t see Levin at all, we were able to focus on the music as above all a stimulating intellectual exercise.
Before leaving the stage, Levin promised to return after intermission to improvise a fantasie in the style of Mozart, using musical phrases submitted by members of the audience. When the second half began, he appeared alone, talking about “the strange feeling of walking on stage to perform a piece that doesn’t yet exist.” Within minutes he had cobbled together phrases submitted from the audience into a fantasie of the sort that Mozart might have composed on the spot had he been there. I say “might” because Mozart surely would have done it better— Mozart was unique after all— but Levin’s attempt to out-Mozart Mozart was itself a feat of dazzling genius.
The program closed with Mozart’s well-known Symphony No. 40, performed briskly under the baton of Nicholas McGegan, a joyful conductor whose high-spirited enthusiasm seemed to infect the musicians and consequently the audience as well. As we walked out, my wife and I found ourselves wondering why we don’t go more often.
Sunday’s Inquirer (Jan. 24) reported that Verizon Hall is only 62% full for Orchestra concerts this season, down from 80% last season. What’s the solution? Last weekend’s program suggested one possible answer: Provide the chemistry of a great ensemble playing great music by a great composer, led by a confident conductor and soloist who know their strengths and love their work.
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