Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and pursue a career in music?
I’m not sure. It might have been the mighty Lester upright in the basement of our home on Lenape Road in Philadelphia. I went there at an early age and started to play. It became sort of my place to be myself, play, compose and have fun. The piano bench was filled with music and I remember reading through the Bach Preludes and Fugues and being completely hooked for all time on this music and its beauty, energy and emotion.
Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Simply put, my teachers and colleagues, especially composers. I had a range of teachers from Marian Filar and Rudolf Serkin in Philadelphia to Leonard Shure in Boston and then Dorothy Taubman in NYC. Each one imparted his/her own sense of a musical world and specifically how they approached music and the instrument. Most recently I have worked with the German conductor Christoph Schlüren and he has also had a strong impact on my playing. Music from Marlboro was a great influence as has every chamber music experience since then, including the formation of my own groups — Vista Lirica, The American Arts Trio and Trio Borealis. I think solo playing and chamber music playing work on each other and benefit each other. Having composers write music for me has been a great joy and the interaction with living artists such as David Del Tredici, Yehudi Wyner, Andrew Rudin, Scott Wheeler, Mike Rose, Amanda Harberg, Scott Brickman, Roger Stubblefield, Mohammed Fairouz, Bunita Marcus and others is a very vital, essential source of inspiration.
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
The recital for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society of the last three Beethoven sonatas was special to me and the recording of those pieces for Parma Recordings is one of my favorite CD’s. I’m proud of the newest recording, “Bright Circle” for Navona. I performed the program of Schubert, Brahms and Del Tredici several times and recorded it in the summer of 2016. One performance of it that stands out in my mind took place at Bargemusic in NYC. Playing “Ode to Music” by David Del Tredici for the composer was really fun and enlightening. I thought he was going to hate what I was doing — as I was playing the piece in his apartment I thought he might start tearing out his hair — but he surprised me by jumping up and declaring he loved it. Of course he had much to add after that, but he was in general agreement with my interpretation.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
Possibly Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Chopin. But I feel like an actor who fulfills the role given her. If I’m playing Gaspard de la Nuit, I put everything into making it work — whatever it takes. Other people seem to identify me with late Classical and Romantic music. But I’m happy in other eras and styles as well.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I’ve just started working on Op. 106 of Beethoven and the Schumann Fantasy — and looking for one other work to go in between the two mountains.I usually sit down and read through say the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues and then instead of learning them, go completely off track. Other people’s suggestions influence me and friends have been suggesting the Hammerklavier for a long time.
Do you have a favorite concert venue to perform in and why?
I don’t have a favorite — although I thought Alice Tully Hall was lovely. Almost any stage makes me happy.
Who are your favorite musicians?
I probably have a penchant for the older musicians — Schnabel, Leonard Shure, Clara Haskil, Dinu Lipatti, Sofronitsky, Richter, Yudina on and on. Some of my favorite singers were Callas, Victoria de los Angeles, and Jussi Bjorling. I like the cellist Steven Isserlis very much and the pianist Radu Lupu.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
One of my best memories is of the Beethoven concerto in C minor, no. 3, with Milton Katims and the Seattle Symphony. But another great and very recent memory is of the Mozart D minor concerto with Mark Peterson and the Wilson Symphony Orchestra in NC. A concerto performance may be the most dramatic experience in a sense.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
First find your voice at the instrument. That may be the most important idea. Work at melding technique with expression so that technique is always serving the music and not the other way around. Put everything you experience in to your playing — your sense of nature, of listening to other instruments, especially the voice, your feeling for color, love and imagination. At the same time study the score tirelessly. Look for the long line and find the structure of the work.
What is your most treasured possession?
One is a letter from my first teacher Marian Filar, who lived through the Holocaust and performed widely after the war. He was a wonderful Chopin interpreter. His letter was very sweet and inspired. I remember him dancing around the room to show a dance rhythm of Chopin or playing recordings of Gieseking, his teacher, and giving so much of himself in lessons.
Beth Levin’s latest disc Bright Circle is available now on the Navonna Records label. Details here
(Original interview 2014, updated spring 2017)