Jonathan Levin, a North Carolina recitalist and lecturer, presented a concert of American favorites at Meredith College. Entitled “American Portraits,” the program was a compilation of 20th century favorites, but not all were originally piano pieces. Levin played from a variety of styles, even playing some of his own transcriptions of vocal theatre pieces. One of the best parts of the concert as a whole was Levin’s insightful introduction to each piece, proving his thoughtful preparation of the program repertoire to both entertain and educate his audience. His interpretations of many contrasting characters within the music were a joy to watch.
The first piece, Levin’s own arrangement of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” from Showboat, takes the famous vocal melody and submerges it within cascading note patterns. Rubato romanticism matches well with the bluesy style of the original melody. Similar to variations on a theme, this piece contains a grand climax sandwiched between the aforementioned textures. This was a great introduction to Levin’s style of both arranging and performance as he successfully communicated the character of a song originally with text through only the piano.
In addition to vocal pieces, Levin also performed piano arrangements of orchestral music. “El Salon Mexico”, written by Aaron Copland and transcribed by Leonard Bernstein, showed the great fluidity with which Levin navigated constantly changing textures. Inspired by folk songs of Mexico, this piece begins with an accented melody in unison, but quickly grows to grand variations on the theme, building to a rapid melody in octaves and ending with an abrupt bang on the piano. This work was an excellent contrast to the less dissonant song arrangements on the program.
After playing several more beautiful arrangements of well-loved musical theatre songs (such as “My Favorite Things,” “Falling in Love with Love,” and an original transcription of “I Got Rhythm”), Levin delved into the work of modern pianist William Bolcom with Nine New Bagatelles. First premiered in 2006, these character pieces are more of a coherent story than nine separate pieces – recurring melodies and characters abound. Before playing, Levin explained some of the inspirations behind the movements, such as "(…Lord Lovell’s trunk)," which tells the unfortunate English folk tale of a new bride locking herself in a trunk while playing hide and seek, only to be discovered many years later as a skeleton. Levin also explained the significance of birdcalls from the third bagatelle reoccurring in the last, "(…pavane for the dead/hope’s feathers)." As a whole, these pieces are very modern, containing abrupt dynamic changes and sections of uncertain meter. Towards the end, an ominous rising bass eerily signals a funeral march, but as promised, the bagatelles end with the return of hopeful birdcalls.
Nearly every lover of music is familiar with the famous themes of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” To conclude his concert, Levin brought these themes to life all on his own, with Gershwin’s own piano arrangement. As expected, Levin performed with flair, taking advantage of the certain freedom when performing without an orchestra. Levin expertly maintained balance throughout the system of melodic themes. This was certainly a crowd favorite, and the audience was on its feet following the conclusion.
There's an opportunity to hear Levin along with mezzo-soprano Nora Graham-Smith and violinist Michael Danchi tonight (2/14) as the trio presents a Valentine’s evening concert entitled “Tales of Love from Beethoven to Broadway.” This performance is a part of the Clayton Piano Festival. See the sidebar for details. More information on this special event can be found here.