Get to Know Guest Pianist Robert Levin

Pianist Robert Levin. Photo credit: Clive Barda
Pianist Robert Levin. Photo credit: Clive Barda

The Kansas City Symphony presents “Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn” featuring guest pianist Robert Levin and led by guest conductor Bernard Labadie on Nov. 25-27 in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Levin performs Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, and the program also includes two Mozart overtures from Don Giovanni and La clemenza di Tito, as well as Haydn’s Symphony No. 98. Tickets from $25. Call the Box Office at (816) 471-0400 or select your seat here.

Tell us about Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, which you’re performing with the Kansas City Symphony for the Nov. 18-20 concerts.
It is deeply influenced by Mozart’s Concerto No. 24 (K.491), which is in the same key and had a profound influence on Beethoven. An oft-cited anecdote has him strolling through the Augarten, a public park in Vienna, with his friend the composer and later music publisher and merchant Johann Baptist Cramer. A performance of the Mozart concerto was taking place in the park. At a certain passage Beethoven grabbed his friend by the arm and cried out, “Cramer! Cramer! We shall NEVER be able to do anything like this!” Indeed, Mozart’s fondness for the key of C minor was taken over by Beethoven in such works as the Pathétique piano sonata, the sonatas Op. 10/1 and 111, the violin sonata Op. 30/2, the string quartet Op. 18/4 and the Fifth Symphony. In turn Beethoven’s Third Concerto influenced Rachmaninoff, who took over some of its characteristics (the key of C minor, the use of an exotic key, E major, for the middle movement, and a fugal passage in the finale). The first movement combines bravura and fire; the second is a profound spiritual experience, and the last movement a gypsy romp.

Do you have a favorite movement? If so, which one and why?
I don’t, because each is so intensely and irresistibly different, but the finale is particularly fun to play.

You’re known for your ability to improvise in the style of great composers, such as Mozart and Beethoven. Will you have the opportunity to improvise in these performances — will you play your own cadenzas?
Yes, I shall be improvising a total of five cadenzas — the long one in the first movement, and slower ones in the second movement (1) and the finale (3). These will stay within Beethoven’s language and are high-wire acts, because I do not prepare: they are absolutely off the cuff.

Tell us about guest conductor Bernard Labadie. How often have you two had the opportunity to collaborate?
Numerous times, in Canada and the U. S. I have enormous respect for Maestro Labadie. His recording of my completion to the Mozart Requiem, made immediately after 9/11, is one of the best. Collaborating with him is a great pleasure.

The programs also feature Mozart overtures from Don Giovanni and La clemenza di Tito. As a Mozart scholar, is there any other background or context that might fascinate or intrigue audiences about either of these two works?
Both were “rush jobs” at the last minute: Mozart wrote down the overture to Don Giovanni in the wee hours the night before the premiere: Constanze had to keep plying him with coffee and tell him stories to keep him awake. One can see this in the autograph: the notation of the first violin and bass lines is clear and careful, the other string voices a bit more hurried, the winds a bit more so and the brass and timpani are written at breakneck speed, with the note stems, which should be vertical, all drawn toward the right in a desperate attempt to get the overture on paper so the copyist could prepare the orchestral parts on time. In the case of La clemenza di tito the entire opera was composed in something like three weeks; Mozart did not have enough time to write the recitatives himself and his assistant, Franz Xaver Süssmayr (who later had the unenviable task of trying to finish the Requiem so that Mozart’s widow could receive the second half of the commission fee, which she needed urgently to feed her two sons) had to take that job over.

These concerts follow the Thanksgiving holiday, which is centered around food and family. We contend attending live music also makes for a lovely holiday tradition. What are you thankful for this year?
I am perpetually thankful that God brought my beloved wife, the piano virtuoso Ya-Fei Chuang, into my life.

What advice do you give to aspiring music students?
A piece of music tells a story. If you don’t tell a story that grabs the audience, no-one will listen. Be brave, take risks, build suspense, joy, terror, ecstasy. Keep people up at night thinking about how your performance changed their understanding of life. Do for music what Meryl Streep does for acting.

After Kansas City, where do you go next? What are other upcoming highlights for you this season?
To Juilliard, for one of my guest stints there; then to Burgundy to perform and record the Schubert piano trios with Noah Bendix-Balgley (concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic) and Peter Wiley (formerly of the Beaux-Arts Trio). In February I record nine of the Mozart sonatas on his piano for ECM (the other nine will be done in 2018). In March I tour for the second time with violinist Hilary Hahn. Later in the spring I solo with and conduct the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra.

When you’re not making music, what other pastimes do you enjoy?
I’m a streetcar/light rail enthusiast.

Anything else you’d like to add?
I can’t wait to get back to Arthur Bryant’s for a burnt ends sandwich.

Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn
Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn

 

Secure your seats to “Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn” by calling the Symphony Box Office at (816) 471-0400 or selecting seats online here. Tickets start at $25.

 

Get to Know Guest Conductor Bernard Labadie

Bernard Labadie. Photo Credit: Francois Rivard
Bernard Labadie. Photo Credit: Francois Rivard

The Kansas City Symphony presents “Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn” featuring guest conductor Bernard Labadie and guest pianist Robert Levin on Nov. 25-27 in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. The program includes two Mozart overtures from Don Giovanni and La clemenza di Tito, as well as Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto and Haydn’s Symphony No. 98. Tickets from $25. Call the Box Office at (816) 471-0400 or select your seat here. 

Tell us about the program for the Nov. 18-20 Kansas City Symphony concerts.
The program explores both the dark and bright sides of the late Classical/early Romantic repertoire. The overture to Don Giovanni opens with the vivid description of hell, which later returns to haunt the main character at the end of the opera. Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto is a profound and compelling reflection on the conflicting emotions of human life, from the stark and menacing beginning to the deep and poignant lyricism of the slow movement. In contrast, the overture to La Clemenza di Tito and Haydn’s Symphony No. 98 celebrate life with radiant — and even witty — jubilation.

These concerts fall immediately after the Thanksgiving holiday, which is centered around food and family gatherings — and we think music should be part of that set too. What are you thankful for this year?
The answer is easy: I’m just thankful for being alive. Two and a half years ago I was diagnosed with a severe form of lymphoma, which brought me through a very long journey of suffering, anxiety, sadness, resilience and slow rebirth. Only this fall have I resumed my conducting career at full speed. Making music has never been so joyful and so meaningful. Life is a great and beautiful thing, and one should never take it for granted.

Since you’re returning to the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts to once again lead the Kansas City Symphony, how do you describe the auditory experience of performing in Helzberg Hall? How does it compare to other halls, in your opinion?
There is no doubt in my mind that Helzberg Hall has world-class acoustics comparable to the best concert venues both in North America and Europe. The listener feels very close to the music and the musicians, and everyone is engulfed in a wonderful and sensuous sonic experience. The sound is at the same time very warm, extremely detailed and clear.

Tell us about pianist Robert Levin. How long have you two known each other? What special qualities does he bring to the stage as a performer?
I have known Robert for 25 years, first as a conducting student while he was performing at the Bachakademie in Stuttgart in 1991. We have performed numerous times together ever since, and I view every single encounter with him as a fabulous privilege. Robert is much more than just a great pianist, musician or musicologist (he is all three at the same time). He is one of those extremely rare individuals whose understanding of music allows them to absorb and recreate the complexity and richness of the great geniuses’ music to their full extent. His capacity to improvise ornaments and cadenzas live on stage in late Classical repertoire, like Mozart and Beethoven concertos, is second to none. He is a leading authority on performance practice, and his work on Mozart’s unfinished works is simply remarkable. The only version of Mozart’s Requiem I ever conduct nowadays is the brilliant completion he published in the early ‘90s. Robert is truly one of the greatest treasures of American music, and it is a privilege to be able to call him a friend.

What advice do you give to aspiring music students?
Believe in you, work hard, stay humble in the face of music and colleagues, and yet pursue your goals with determination and passion. Music is an amazing gift and must always be treated with utmost respect.

What are other upcoming highlights for you this season?
This season is really full of exciting challenges for me. Among others, I will return to the New York and the Los Angeles philharmonics, the St. Louis Symphony and the Bavarian State Radio Orchestra in Munich. I also will have my debut with the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto (with one of my favorite operas: Mozart’s Magic Flute) next January, as well as first appearances in Oslo and Vienna (at long last!). And, of course, I have more projects with the two groups I founded in Quebec City, the Les Violons du Roy and La Chapelle de Québec.

When you’re not traveling, preparing for upcoming concerts or the like, do you have pastimes you enjoy in your down time?
I used to walk a lot before my illness, and I can’t wait to have entirely rebuilt my muscular strength so that I can go back to it regularly. My girlfriend has introduced me to fishing last summer and I loved it! When I travel, I always try to save some time for discovering the many wonderful places I’m privileged to visit… especially if there is a vineyard in the neighborhood!

Anything else you’d like to add?
Returning to the Kansas City Symphony is one of the joys of my year. The orchestra is fabulous, the management and whole organization are world-class, and the audience always vibrant and knowledgeable. Can’t hope for more!


Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn
Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn

Secure your seats to “Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn” by calling the Symphony Box Office at (816) 471-0400 or selecting seats online here. Tickets start at $25.