LEVY: Cello Concerto / Symphony No. 3 / A Summer Overture (Ireland RTE National Symphony Orchestra/ Scott Ballantyne/ Takuo Yuasa) (Naxos American Classics: 8.559234)
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Frank Ezra Levy (b.1930)
Son of the distinguished Swiss composer, pianist, and teacher Ernst Levy, Frank Ezra Levy was born in Paris on15th October, 1930, and came to New York in 1939. He began cello lessons at the age of ten, and at twelve hebegan studies in theory and composition with Hugo Kauder, which continued for nine years. After graduating fromthe High School of Music and Art, Levy attended the Juilliard School of Music and the University of Chicago. Hismajor cello teachers were Leonard Rose and Janos Starker.
A former member of the St Louis Symphony and the Feldman Chamber Ensemble, Frank Ezra Levy is still aprofessional cellist, and continues to compose. Large works include a four-act comic opera, a cantata, foursymphonies, several other orchestral pieces, and eight concertos. All the rest of his 88 published works arechamber music, an extraordinary variety of pieces for 1-15 instruments, often in highly unusual combinations.
Notable premi?¿res of Frank Levy's music include his Third Symphony at Carnegie Hall (1989), the HolocaustTriptych at Manhattan School of Music (1993), his First Cello Concerto at Lincoln Center (2002) and ApostropheNo. 3 for 15 solo strings, at Music Festival of the Hamptons (2004). Currently available among his recorded worksare the Fourth Symphony and First Cello Concerto. LP recordings include the Violin Duo, Sonata for Clarinet andPiano, Suite for Horn and Piano, Adagio and Rondo for Two Clarinets and Bass Clarinet, and the Brass Quintet.A Summer Overture Cello Concerto No. 2 Rondo Tarantella Symphony No. 3
I wrote my first piece, a setting of William ErnestHenley's Invictus, at the age of ten, when I was goingthrough an 'opera period'. A subscription to theMetropolitan Opera was my birthday present that year,and Wagner was my idol, so that song was undoubtedlyinfluenced by his music. Some years later, wheneverything I had composed through high school wasaccidentally thrown out, I was devastated until I foundthat anything of real value was still in my memory: mylittle Invictus was not.
Wagner was soon replaced, when I was twelve andbegan studying theory at a small music school run bytwo Viennese refugees in Manhattan. My teacher wasHugo Kauder, a brilliant composer whose own musicaltraining had emphasized an intense study ofRenaissance masters. Strict, demanding, unreasonable,Kauder taught me species counterpoint for years withlittle or no praise, while squashing my creative efforts.
Only many years later I learned that he considered mehis prize student. As part of my studies I participated inweekly chamber music sessions at his apartment: theplaying was often quite dreadful, but the music, mostlyKauder's own, intrigued me. It still does. I wasfascinated and moved by it, and in fact can still recall aparticularly haunting pentatonic melody in his settingof a Chinese drama. I was so much influenced by hisstyle that some characteristics, a concern with themelodic and rhythmic integrity of individual parts, forinstance, and doublings in fourths and fifths, stillappear in my own music.
My other principal influence was my father, withwhom Kauder formed a close friendship and mutualadmiration society. A formidable pianist, and a majorteacher at New England Conservatory, M.I.T. and otherschools, Ernst Levy was primarily a composer. I stillremember singing in the Dessoff Choir, as a twelveyear-old tenor, when we performed his Ninth Symphonyat Carnegie Hall. The following summer my brotherMatthys and I, and two young ladies from theconservatory, were the only students in a little musiccourse my father taught in Skowhegan, Maine, whilecompleting the piano sketches for his Tenth Symphony.
Although he wrote fifteen symphonies in all, his Tenth,one of the most lyrical and expressive of all my father'sworks, had the most profound and lasting effect on mymusical development.
My father's style was much more dissonant thanKauder's, and generally employed larger forces, but thetwo men shared a dedication to tonality, linearcounterpoint, rhythmic flexibility and modality that hasshaped much of my own musical approach. I do not,however, use either of their notational eccentricities:my father composed without metric signatures, Kauderwithout barlines. I have embraced the work of sometwentieth-century composers, Bartok, Jana?úek and, to alesser extent, Stravinsky, and have avoided othercurrents of the time, such as serial music: my mostpowerful influences are still Ernst Levy and HugoKauder. It was the spirit of their music, and their refusalto stray from their individual paths, I think, thatinfluenced me most. Although with time I developedmy own voice, they showed me the way.
Symphony No. 3, composed in 1977, is by far theearliest of the works heard here, but the piecedemonstrates a structural approach still at the core ofmuch of my music: the opening melody, here in theclarinet, generates a series of variations that dissects,develops and rearranges it, turning the material like thebits of glass inside a musical kaleidoscope. Ten 'turns'bring about a forceful restatement of the theme, andthen a quintuplet figure in unison strings prepares forand leads directly to the irregular rhythms of the secondmovement. This final rondo is based on furthertransformations of the first movement's openingmelody. Harmony in my music is generally a byproductof linear writing, the temporary alignment ofindividual voices: but tonal centres do develop, andshape an overall harmonic structure. Often I choose atonally ambiguous initial motive that will allow a pieceto 'find itself' in the course of the work. This piece, forexample, begins in a tonal centre of D flat, finds C bythe end of the first movement, then settles on A for theduration of the second.
The symphony is scored for only four winds, sixbrass, three percussion players and strings. 25 yearslater I chose similarly modest orchestral forces for myCello Concerto No. 2, where they are often usedsparingly to help bring the virtuoso cello line into relief.
Much the same process of 'kaleidoscopic variation'determines the design of the concerto as well: in theAllegro moderato the solo cello presents the openingphrase to be transformed through interaction with theorchestra. Not only individual motives but also entiresections appear in various guises, in different lights andcolours, with a constant play and shift of textures fromthe intricate and complex to the most transparent. TheMolto adagio is a dramatic dialogue between theindividual and the often chaotic events around him: thesolo line, lyrical by nature, sometimes has to fight itsway through the orchestral commentary. A chorale-liketheme evolves and reappears a number of times, as doesthe first movement subject. After a return of the adagiomelody in the bassoon the movement ends in quietresolution. The final Allegro is an exuberant rondo,driving, virtuosic, and slightly quirky. Near the end atranquil, waltz-like section, a brief theme andvariations, surfaces, and then another reminiscence ofthe first movement leads back to the final restatementand short coda. The concerto was written for my goodfriend Scott Ballantyne, inspired by his brilliantperformances of my first Cello Concerto, both inconcert and recording.
The two smaller pieces heard here are scored forlarger forces. In A Summer Overture, my modern-daytranslation of the thirteenth-century English round'Sumer is icumen in', all the forces of a large orchestra,with an augmented battery of percussion, reduce thecanon to fragments, scatter the pieces far and wide, andfinally reassemble them into a full-blown arrival of theoriginal. The overture was written in 1997, the sameyear composer/playwright Frank Ledlie Moore agreedto write the libretto for an opera I had long want