Igor Levit. Photo from igor-levit.de

Igor Levit takes on the pinnacle of piano repertory

Igor Levit rarely does anything small. The acclaimed Russian-Jewish-German pianist raised eyebrows as a 26-year-old when, for his Sony Classical debut in 2013, he tackled Beethoven’s last five piano sonatas, considered by many to be among the most challenging and profound works ever composed.

Levit continued to set the bar high with his next recordings: Bach’s six partitas and an award-winning three-CD set of three massive scores — Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, Beethoven’s “33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli” and Frederic Rzewski’s 1975 “The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (36 Variations on a Chilean Song).”

For his March 9 recital at Hahn Hall at the Music Academy of the West in Montecito, Calif., Levit is scheduled to perform the second half of Rzewski’s 2014 suite “Dreams,” which is inspired by an Akira Kurosawa film, and Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations (Op. 120), an intense musical-intellectual-emotional Everest many pianists don’t usually attempt to climb until later in their careers.

“I don’t make my life easy sometimes,” Levit said by phone from Berlin. “People say you’re too young to play Beethoven before age 40, but without knowing the individual musician, without being in touch with the individual personality, to say, ‘Under 40, you should not play Beethoven’ is, to put it in short form, BS.”

The pianist said Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations set has always been “the pinnacle” for him. “I’ve been living with it longer than any other score, working on it longer than any other,” he said. “When Leonard Cohen passed away, a friend wrote that probably the only adequate obituary must be ‘Go listen.’ That’s it. Here I would say the same. There’s much more to say, but first thing, go listen.”

Levit was born in Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod) in Russia in 1987. His family took up permanent residence in Hanover, Germany, when he was 8. Levit said he learned German “in a couple of weeks.”

Though he still speaks Russian fluently, Levit said he has few memories of the country. “I’ve been back twice for brief visits, the last time 15 years ago,” he said. “Through my parents I know a lot, but I can’t recall anything, almost.”

After 21 years in Hanover, Levit moved to Berlin last year. He said the city — whose thriving, close-knit artistic community and culture have attracted many Jewish musicians over the past decade — offers a unique kind of freedom.

“Berlin hasn’t found itself yet,” Levit said. “This is a very beautiful thing, because the city is open to questions, to new ideas. It was only 27 years ago that Berlin was reunited. And what is 27 years? I am older than 27. Berlin still hasn’t decided who it is, and thank God it hasn’t. There are about a million identities and answers to the question, ‘Who or what is Berlin?’ ”

Levit said that while he’s not observant, he identifies as Jewish. And while he is socially and politically outspoken, he harbors no illusions about the power of music to affect the world’s current political situation.

“It’s very tricky and complicated,” Levit said. “I don’t think it is possible to change anything with music. It can help, but people make decisions. We have to act. Music can and should inspire ideas and create a certain environment. But just because you love Beethoven doesn’t necessarily make you a good human being.”

To inspire, music should somehow reflect the current time, Levit said. For him, it’s not enough to study the era in which a composer lived.

“It’s important, but only one-half of what is important,” Levit said. “The other half is, ‘I’m a child — a person — of my time and not of the composer’s time.’ ”

Whether he’s confronting a new score like Rzewski’s “Dreams” or a classic such as Beethoven’s 1823 “Diabelli” Variations, he keeps an open mind.

“I can hear what I read,” Levit said. “I start learning a piece for the first time without preconditions. I play it and certain ideas arrive and disappear. I see what I see.”

Levit counts pianists Artur Schnabel and Marc-André Hamelin among his major influences. “I don’t know a single recording of any Beethoven piece which is as alive, incredible, insane, unpredictable and inspiring as Schnabel’s Beethoven recordings,” Levit said. “And Hamelin has a huge responsibility for my repertoire curiosity. Without his recording, I wouldn’t have known about Rzewski’s ‘The People United’ and many other scores.”

Like Hamelin’s, Levit’s wide repertory includes rarely performed works. When he made his Southern California debut in 2015 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, he performed British composer Ronald Stevenson’s “Fantasy on ‘Peter Grimes.’ ” So don’t expect Chopin anytime soon. Indeed, a London newspaper once quoted Levit as calling Chopin “dumb.”

“That was a misinterpretation,” Levit said. “I never said Chopin was dumb. On the contrary, I love listening to Chopin’s music. There are pianists who play him in the most incredible way. It’s only me playing it. I don’t feel comfortable.”

Levit is currently in the middle of performing a complete cycle of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, and he’s working on Shostakovich’s cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues. His future plans include more Schumann — “I love playing his concerto” — and eventually some Liszt. “But there are so many things going on now that he’s in the back room.”

Meanwhile, Levit said he takes his roles as both musician and citizen seriously. “This society was created and built by responsible fellows,” Levit said. “To say, ‘Oh, well, I’m a musician and I’m making art, so don’t bother me with daily life’ is arrogant and wrong. I am a citizen of my country who happens to be a musician, and not vice versa.”

András Schiff talks family, war and humanity

The acclaimed Hungarian-born pianist András Schiff, a part-time London resident who was knighted last year, returns to Walt Disney Concert Hall on Oct. 18 for a recital of late works by Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. Later in the week, on Oct. 22, 23 and 24, he’s scheduled to play and conduct three concerts in the hall with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 (K. 503) and Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War.” 

Earlier this month, a day after his packed recital at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, Schiff sat down in his hotel suite to discuss his artistry, his continued public stand against anti-Semitism and the degradation of public life he sees in Hungary. 

In 2011, Schiff, 61, became a controversial figure when he announced a self-imposed exile from his homeland. According to Schiff, things have not improved since that time. 

“It’s much worse,” Schiff said, “because during communism, this anti-Semitism was somehow repressed. Now it’s really broken out. It’s not official, but it’s unbelievable. What kind of language is being tolerated? Unimaginable hate speech — in parliament, in the press.

“They say this is freedom of speech,” he continued, “but it’s hate speech, and it’s disgusting. It should not be legally forbidden, but in a decent culture, there should be a consensus that there are certain things you don’t do or say, because it’s not decent.”

Schiff said there are about 100,000 Jews remaining in Budapest but currently no effective counterforce to the irrational hatred — a hatred he recalled experiencing firsthand as a 4-year-old growing up in Budapest.

“I was the only Jewish kid in a neighborhood of Catholics and Protestants,” Schiff said. “They didn’t mind us, because my father was a very good doctor who was respected and quite liked. I was playing soccer with the other kids — I loved soccer — and one day the neighbor kid said, ‘You can no longer play with us because you are a Jew.’ This kid was maybe 3. It was the first time I heard the word ‘Jew.’ So I asked, ‘Why is that a problem?’ And he said, ‘You people, you killed our Jesus Christ.’ Since I was not schlagfertig [quick-tongued], I could not say I was at the dentist that day.”

Schiff laughed, but clearly the memory still hurt.

“I’m just telling you this because how does a 3-year-old kid, probably a good-hearted kid, where does he hear it from? From his parents? The church? They haven’t learned that Jesus was a Jew. That’s news for them. All these figures of Christianity were Jews. These religions go hand in hand.”

Maybe that’s why Schiff feels comfortable with religious works by famous Christian composers such as Bach and Haydn. “You ask me about the Jewishness, and yet I’m most attracted to these sacred pieces, like Haydn’s ‘Creation’ and Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion’ and ‘Mass in B minor,’ ” he said. “It couldn’t be less Jewish. And yet it’s the spiritual element. It’s this divine connection. When these composers wrote for the church, they really outdid themselves.

“But it’s also like when I did Beethoven’s ‘Missa Solemnis’ last year,” he said. “When I went back to Beethoven’s late sonatas, they gained a new dimension. He was working on the last sonatas simultaneously with the ‘Missa,’ so then I can say [when interpreting a sonata], ‘Aha, here is the Credo, and here is the Gloria and here is the Agnus Dei.’ ”

Schiff left Budapest in 1979 for London. He is the only child of Holocaust survivors. Both parents lost their first spouses in the Holocaust; his father, an amateur violinist, also lost a 4-year-old son from his first marriage. His mother, trained as a pianist, had hoped to become a piano teacher. 

“She came back from the war with no strength to continue with music,” Schiff said. “But a piano was in the house, and I showed interest.” Schiff was 5 when he started to pick out tunes he heard on the wireless. Though Schiff took up conducting many years ago, he said he would never be “unfaithful” to the piano.

“I know exactly my abilities and limitations,” he said. “I will not conduct the ‘Rite of Spring’ or Mahler symphonies. Nor would I like to. The music I do — Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, Brahms and Schumann — this I can do from my experience on the piano and from chamber music and ensembles. I can play these scores on piano, but it’s not like the real thing.”

In his role as conductor, Schiff said Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War” is especially relevant. In 1973, during the height of Vietnam War protests, Leonard Bernstein performed it at the National Cathedral in Washington. Hearing this, Schiff said, “Good for him: a big statement.” 

“When I programmed the Mass, I didn’t see what is happening in Europe,” Schiff said. “It is a disaster. War has become a huge business. In [George] Orwell, ‘War is peace.’ Politicians preach peace but tell us when they are not selling arms, the economy is not doing well. It seems to me the economy is only doing well when they make war. But preferably, not in your own place. So when you say ‘Mass in Time of War,’ there is always war.”

Like war, anti-Semitism has long blighted humanity, and all his life, Schiff has been trying to understand it.

“I wish I knew the answer,” he said. “Unfortunately, the issue is more general. The problem is with human beings. It’s jealousy, hatred, envy — those categories. To find an outlet for those emotions, people look for scapegoats, and the Jews are at hand. In Hungary, the Gypsies are also at hand. But if you go back to Cain and Abel, if the human race were one race, one nation and one family, they would still kill each other. If you have minorities or people who are different from the majority, then it’s a good excuse.”

For tickets and more information about András Schiff’s upcoming appearances at Walt Disney Concert Hall,

Cellist’s path to Judaism

When cellist Lynn Harrell would play “Kol Nidre” at his synagogue on Yom Kippur, he felt more than the notes and the melody. It was through the music that he discovered he wanted to become a Jew.

“It was a 45- to 50-year journey to come to the realization that all the people I really loved, married and were close to all my life were Jews,” he said. “In my heart of hearts, I am a Jew.”

Harrell, 69, converted to Judaism two summers ago, but over the years, he had always connected with the religion. As a child, every one of his friends was Jewish, and when he was a teenager, he was taught the cello by a Holocaust survivor. 

In 1994, he had the chance to play “Kol Nidre” with London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Vatican. The ceremony, attended by Pope John Paul II and the Chief Rabbi of Rome, was the first Vatican commemoration of the Holocaust. That same year, at the Grammys, he also performed an excerpt from his nominated recording of Beethoven’s String Trios with Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman. 

His former wife and current one are Jews, and he sent two of his children to preschool at his synagogue, Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica. 

During the High Holy Days in 2009, Harrell decided to formally pursue conversion. “I wanted to make the journey complete, particularly for my cello teacher, who showed me his Auschwitz uniform,” he said. “It deeply affected me as a 13-year-old.”

 Harrell was raised in a Christian family with a brother who became a minister. His father was the leading baritone for the Metropolitan Opera, so he was raised around music. At the age of 9, he began taking cello lessons, which he would eventually pursue as a full-time career. 

He and his current wife, Helen Nightengale — a violinist and a Reform Jew — are the parents of Hanna, 8, and Noah, 6. Together, they decided that raising their children with both Christmas and Chanukah was not right, so they chose the latter holiday.

To start the conversion process, Harrell began taking classes with Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels at Beth Shir Shalom, a progressive Reform synagogue. He connected with the rabbi because the services are mostly song-based, and they are both musicians. 

Through the course, Harrell learned about the history of Judaism, the parables and the life lessons. He learned how to read Torah and celebrate the holidays. The rabbi tried to talk him out of the process three times, but he persisted. When he was ready to complete the conversion, he, along with Comess-Daniels, his family and some close friends, traveled to Jerusalem, where his immersion took place in a stream under the Western Wall. When Harrell emerged, he said, he felt like a Jew. 

“Before that, I was on the outside looking in,” Harrell said. “After my conversion, when it was Yom Kippur and I played ‘Kol Nidre,’ the rabbi said it was something extra special. I said that it feels different because I’m from the inside looking out now.”

Aside from being an active member at Beth Shir Shalom nowadays, Harrell celebrates his Judaism by practicing tikkun olam (repairing the world). In particular, he and Nightengale started their own nonprofit organization called HEARTbeats, which utilizes music to help children in need. 

The couple have also spent the past three years putting together and recording an album, “We’ll Paint You a Rainbow,” which features the music of Paul Simon, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Joan Baez. Released in March, the album benefits both the HEARTbeats Foundation and the Save the Children HEART campaign, which also serves kids in need around the world. As Harrell said, “Experiencing the emotion of music is something that can heal. It can simply change someone’s life.”

And it is music, in a variety of ways, which brought Harrell to Judaism and helped him discover who he was all along. “I came to realize more and more that this is who I am and I’ve always been that way,” he said. “It took a long time.”