Q&A: Levinson making sound waves

Betty Dillard bdillard@bizpress.net

An internationally acclaimed violinist, chamber musician and pedagogue, Gary Levinson thrives on making music come to life. He also likes to drive fast cars. Levinson, who has been senior principal associate concertmaster with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra since 2001, is now behind the wheel of the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth as its new artistic director, only the second one in the organization’s 26-year history. Levinson was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. His father is renowned double bassist Eugene Levinson, who is in his 28th year on the faculty of Juilliard School of Music, and his mother is pianist Gina Levinson, a faculty member at Julliard since 1987. Levinson immigrated with his family to the United States in 1977. He made his U.S. solo debut at the age of 13 with the Minnesota Orchestra. He was chosen by Zubin Mehta to join the New York Philharmonic in 1987 at age 21 and made his solo debut with the Philharmonic in 1991, the same year he earned his master’s degree at Juilliard.

As the first violinist of the Elysium String Quartet, he recorded two critically acknowledged CDs and toured the Mediterranean as part of the inaugural season of the Mykonos International Music Festival in 2000. A prolific recording artist, Levinson has collaborated with numerous other celebrated artists such as Yo-Yo Ma, Lynn Harrell, Eugenia Zukerman, Lukas Foss, Carter Brey, Christopher O’Riley and Adam Neiman. He appears as a regular recitalist in Western Europe, Carnegie Hall, Merkin Concert Hall, the Bohemians at the Kosciuszco Foundation and various music festivals. In the first few weeks in his new role in Fort Worth, Levinson orchestrated an updated repertoire and fresh, original programming. “He is already becoming an important part of the Fort Worth classical music scene, and his enthusiasm is infectious,” said John Forestner, CMSFW board chairman. “We are a whole new society with his skills, and we hope to attract a wide audience to enjoy these superb performances produced under Gary’s direction.”

Levinson has created a series of seven programs that feature established American and European ensembles. The 2013-2014 season, titled “A Season of Reflection,” connects the music in a timeline of the past, the present and the future. Highlights include a return of the Miro Quartet on Oct. 19 and the Fort Worth debut of the Diaz String Trio and the Atrium Quartet. A major coup is a revival appearance of the Vermeer String Quartet in a concert, at Levinson’s request, in the new auditorium at the Kimbell Art Museum. A particularly notable concert, set for Jan. 4, will feature Levinson with his father as well as other artists familiar to CMSFW audiences. For details on all the season’s concerts and artists, visit www.chambermusicfw.org.

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What drew you to Fort Worth and to the society? When I came to the D-FW Metroplex from New York City, I learned about the beautiful Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Having made a plan to visit the museum shortly thereafter, I was delighted to learn that it was the home of the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth. As I learned more and more about the society over the years, it became apparent that the board was a uniquely cohesive, dedicated group of people who not only loved chamber music but understood how to create an environment for the series to thrive. Having met John Forestner only solidified that impression. Upon discussions of what the vision of the board was, I became convinced that this is a superb organization with limitless potential as well as the framework to achieve its goals.

Describe your new approach to Fort Worth chamber music. My artistic approach is to have three distinct areas of musicianship presented in a cohesive manner so that a patron who attends each concert has a sense of programming that is a continuous journey over the course of a season. Those areas are: presenting world-class artists, presenting artists who have had an association with the society over the years and special events. I feel like the programming for this season is balanced, carefully thought out and will treat our audience to a powerful experience unlike any other.

There are numerous highlights in the upcoming season, including the special Easter-season concert at the Kimbell. How did that come about? I am looking forward eagerly to all our performances. The April 19 concert to which you allude is a particular event that had every reason not to happen, but did. The Vermeer Quartet, one of all time’s greatest quartets, ceased playing in 2008. I was lucky to have met their violist, Richard Young, at a music festival where we played chamber music together. There was an immediate sense of unified musical thought and he has since become one of my most trusted and dear friends. So when I wanted to see if he could get the Vermeer back together, I was certain he would laugh at me. But as luck would have it, they wanted to perform again on a supremely limited basis and with supremely limited repertoire – one work. But what a work it is: Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ. This will be a mystical, unforgettable performance, one the Vermeer is already celebrated for in their recording of the piece, at Kimbell’s new auditorium. I can’t wait.

It must be particularly rewarding and special to perform with your father. I was very lucky to have been born into a family of two superb musicians. When I was a teenager, playing together was a reward for something going right – winning a competition or a successful recital. At this point, we don’t live in the same city, so to have a chance to collaborate with my dad as a colleague in one of the most beloved works in the repertoire – the String Bass Quintet by Antonin Dvorak – is a great privilege, one I am really looking forward to. By the way, he already wants to know if we can have some extra rehearsals.

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Is there anyone you’d still like to collaborate with? Absolutely. The list is too long to put down here but I am fortunate to work with new people every year, which is exhilarating and very rewarding.

Are you working on any major recording projects? Do you plan a recording project with the CMSFW? I completed three recording projects last season, one chamber music and two as a soloist. CMSFW deserves a recording project and we are working on tilling the soil, if you will, on making that happen. While recording companies are bemoaning their sales figures, the independent recording industry is thriving and I look forward to seizing on an opportunity to plan a project for the society and its patrons.

The Dallas Symphony provided you an Antonio Stradivari violin, made in 1726. What is that like to play on? I can’t put into words what a privilege it is to play the Strad. It is my voice, my musical partner and one of the great learning experiences of all time. Its beauty of tone, the way it responds to me, the constant sense of wonder one gets when I try something on it – all of that adds up to a very human interactive experience. I never think of it as a piece of gloriously constructed wood – it is a living, breathing work of art, capable of anything. It also happens to be very stable considering its age and condition, which is a testament to the genius of the great Cremonese maestro.

What do you like to do for fun? I love to cook, play tennis and drive performance cars. This spring I learned to my great sorrow that the autobahn in Germany is now over 90 percent speed-limited, so all autosport performance may soon have to be left to the pros.

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What advice would you give to young, aspiring musicians? Find the best mentor you can. This may be a relative or a friend, hopefully a teacher who can open up the magic of great music to the student. Also, listen to great performances of the past and present. Not to learn “how it goes” but to try to get into the minds and hearts of the great artists. It is often the best way to learn, to figure music out for yourself. And take chances on stage; that is what makes making music come to life.