The Concerti of Frank Ezra Levy

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LEVY: Concerto No. 6 for Piano, Strings & Timpani. Divertimento for Viola, Piano & Strings. Divertimento for Clarinet, Strings & Piano. Dialogue for English Horn & Strings. Viola Concerto No. 2 / Hana Gubenko, vla; Barbara Jost, Eng-hn; Andreas Ramseier, cl; Timon Altwegg, pno; Orchester de Chambre de Toulouse; Giles Colliard, cond / Guild GMCD 7809

Talk about a composer with a diverse background! Frank Ezra Levy was born in 1930 to china restorer Else Hammerschlag and Swiss pianist-composer Ernst Levy while they were living in Paris. Seeing the clouds of war amass on the French border, he and his family moved to America in 1939 where they settled down in Fort Lee, New Jersey (just over the George Washington Bridge from New York City…I lived in Fort Lee for about a year and a half back in the 1970s). Levy graduated from the High School of Music & Arts (now LaGuardia) in 1948, earned a B.S. from Juilliard in 1951 and an M.A. degree in Musicology from the University of Chicago in 1954. He later taught at the New School and Brooklyn College, also having a stint as Composer-in-Residence at Kean University in Hillside, New Jersey.

Levy was one of the few modern composers of his time who wrote in an essentially tonal style,  which of course put him on the outside of the classical music mainstream of the 1950s and ‘60s, when everything had to be atonal if not 12-tone. Of course, he was not alone; Ned Rorem, Gordon Getty and several others were also marginalized. (I had to luck to be able to ask Getty, via an email interview, if he felt vindicated by the return to tonality, to which he responded that he was glad that others finally saw music his way!) But the musical wheel eventually turned around, thus Levy (and Rorem, and the others) finally became accepted.

I would love to be able to sit the echt-atonalists and the “shock value” composers of today down and force them to listen to Levy’s music. It is not only attractive, but also inventive and utterly fascinating. Despite his grounding in tonality, he is no stranger to chromatic movement or shifting chord positions. He holds your attention despite his desire not to shock because it is good. Absolutely nothing he does in his work is meant to grab attention. There are no abrasive chord openings, and in the first concerto the timpani play along with everyone else in the orchestra. The piano part, relatively quiet in nature, is musical and interesting. It weaves its way in and out of the orchestral texture without slamming its way through; indeed, most of the piano line is written for the right hand, playing melodic figures that enhance the music rather than stand out from everyone behind him. Only in the third movement does the soloist and orchestra play loudly, and even then the fascinating textures of the music intertwine to create figures that sound more closely related to Baroque than to Romantic or Stravinskian aesthetics. You get the impression that Levy loved Bach, as there is more of an influence of his music in these movements than of any other composer, only translated into a modern, quasi-tonal language.

There is more rhythmic drive in the Divertimento for Viola, Piano & Strings than in the opening Concerto, and here Levy sounds more like some of the modern composers of today, but note that, when the tempo relaxes, he is not writing amorphous folderol that has no relationship to the preceding material, but is in fact a development of it. The viola has an almost cadenza-like figure to play early in the movement, following which the rhythmic drive of the movement resumes. And it’s all of a piece. A fine young composer with naturally good instincts, but not yet a sense of construction, like Roberto Esposito could learn a lot from Levy’s music. In the second movement, Levy uses some sliding string figures behind the viola and piano, but he doesn’t lay into them. They just sort of come and go, as musical color, and thus add to the ongoing discourse without becoming annoying. There is also, occasionally, a hint of Sephardic music in some of the passages woven into the Divertimento, but again, they’re not laid into heavily for effect. And interestingly, Levy wrote a fourth movement for this piece in a moderato tempo and 3/4 time, again hinting at Sephardic harmonies. Throughout the piece, the piano takes a back seat to the viola, accompanying the string instrument as if it were a viola sonata with orchestra. The fifth and sixth movements follow on this pattern, a “Larghetto” followed by a “Moderato ma con fuoco,” so in a sense it is a “double concerto” in that you have two sets of three movements. That he was able to create continuity between them using variations of the various themes is a wonderful surprise.

The Divertimento for Clarinet, Strings & Piano is more along the lines of the opening Concerto; in fact, so much like it that it sounds like a sequel. It’s a good piece, too, but being sequenced on the same CD gives the listener a feeling of déjà vu. It, too, is in six movements. The Dialogue for English Horn & Strings is slightly different in format. Here, the languorous quality of the solo instrument is played against a rhythmic backdrop of the string orchestra, which complement each other. It is less than eight minutes long.

With the Violin Concerto, we hear Levy at his most adventurous and exciting. The driving figures of the solo instrument are played against equally rhythmic figures from the orchestra to create an outstanding work, quite different in character from all that preceded it. It is a technically challenging work but, again, superbly constructed. Unusually written in four movements instead of the customary three, Levy has no trouble in linking the music by using variants of his melodic material in each. As a surprising teaser, the brief third movement (2:26) rather ends in the middle of nowhere before the fourth picks up both the pace and one’s interest.

This is a fascinating album of music by a very fine composer who marched to the beat of his own drummer.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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