About this Recording
8.559234 - LEVY, F.E.: Cello Concerto / Symphony No. 3 / A Summer Overture (Takuo Yuasa)
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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 on 15th October, 1930, and came to New York in 1939. He began cello lessons at the age of ten, and at twelve he began studies in theory and composition with Hugo Kauder, which continued for nine years. After graduating from the High School of Music and Art, Levy attended the Juilliard School of Music and the University of Chicago. His major 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 a professional cellist, and continues to compose. Large works include a four-act comic opera, a cantata, four symphonies, several other orchestral pieces, and eight concertos. All the rest of his 88 published works are chamber music, an extraordinary variety of pieces for 1-15 instruments, often in highly unusual combinations.
Notable premières of Frank Levy’s music include his Third Symphony at Carnegie Hall (1989), the Holocaust Triptych at Manhattan School of Music (1993), his First Cello Concerto at Lincoln Center (2002) and Apostrophe No. 3 for 15 solo strings, at Music Festival of the Hamptons (2004). Currently available among his recorded works are the Fourth Symphony and First Cello Concerto. LP recordings include the Violin Duo, Sonata for Clarinet and Piano, 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 Ernest Henley’s Invictus, at the age of ten, when I was going through an ‘opera period’. A subscription to the Metropolitan Opera was my birthday present that year, and Wagner was my idol, so that song was undoubtedly influenced by his music. Some years later, when everything I had composed through high school was accidentally thrown out, I was devastated until I found that anything of real value was still in my memory: my little Invictus was not.
Wagner was soon replaced, when I was twelve and began studying theory at a small music school run by two Viennese refugees in Manhattan. My teacher was Hugo Kauder, a brilliant composer whose own musical training had emphasized an intense study of Renaissance masters. Strict, demanding, unreasonable, Kauder taught me species counterpoint for years with little or no praise, while squashing my creative efforts. Only many years later I learned that he considered me his prize student. As part of my studies I participated in weekly chamber music sessions at his apartment: the playing was often quite dreadful, but the music, mostly Kauder’s own, intrigued me. It still does. I was fascinated and moved by it, and in fact can still recall a particularly haunting pentatonic melody in his setting of a Chinese drama. I was so much influenced by his style that some characteristics, a concern with the melodic and rhythmic integrity of individual parts, for instance, and doublings in fourths and fifths, still appear in my own music.
My other principal influence was my father, with whom Kauder formed a close friendship and mutual admiration society. A formidable pianist, and a major teacher at New England Conservatory, M.I.T. and other schools, Ernst Levy was primarily a composer. I still remember singing in the Dessoff Choir, as a twelveyear- old tenor, when we performed his Ninth Symphony at Carnegie Hall. The following summer my brother Matthys and I, and two young ladies from the conservatory, were the only students in a little music course my father taught in Skowhegan, Maine, while completing 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’s works, had the most profound and lasting effect on my musical development.
My father’s style was much more dissonant than Kauder’s, and generally employed larger forces, but the two men shared a dedication to tonality, linear counterpoint, rhythmic flexibility and modality that has shaped much of my own musical approach. I do not, however, use either of their notational eccentricities: my father composed without metric signatures, Kauder without barlines. I have embraced the work of some twentieth-century composers, Bartók, Janáãek and, to a lesser extent, Stravinsky, and have avoided other currents of the time, such as serial music: my most powerful influences are still Ernst Levy and Hugo Kauder. It was the spirit of their music, and their refusal to stray from their individual paths, I think, that influenced me most. Although with time I developed my own voice, they showed me the way.
Symphony No. 3, composed in 1977, is by far the earliest of the works heard here, but the piece demonstrates a structural approach still at the core of much of my music: the opening melody, here in the clarinet, generates a series of variations that dissects, develops and rearranges it, turning the material like the bits of glass inside a musical kaleidoscope. Ten ‘turns’ bring about a forceful restatement of the theme, and then a quintuplet figure in unison strings prepares for and leads directly to the irregular rhythms of the second movement. This final rondo is based on further transformations of the first movement’s opening melody. Harmony in my music is generally a byproduct of linear writing, the temporary alignment of individual voices: but tonal centres do develop, and shape an overall harmonic structure. Often I choose a tonally ambiguous initial motive that will allow a piece to ‘find itself’ in the course of the work. This piece, for example, begins in a tonal centre of D flat, finds C by the end of the first movement, then settles on A for the duration of the second.
The symphony is scored for only four winds, six brass, three percussion players and strings. 25 years later I chose similarly modest orchestral forces for my Cello Concerto No. 2, where they are often used sparingly 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 the Allegro moderato the solo cello presents the opening phrase to be transformed through interaction with the orchestra. Not only individual motives but also entire sections appear in various guises, in different lights and colours, with a constant play and shift of textures from the intricate and complex to the most transparent. The Molto adagio is a dramatic dialogue between the individual and the often chaotic events around him: the solo line, lyrical by nature, sometimes has to fight its way through the orchestral commentary. A chorale-like theme evolves and reappears a number of times, as does the first movement subject. After a return of the adagio melody in the bassoon the movement ends in quiet resolution. The final Allegro is an exuberant rondo, driving, virtuosic, and slightly quirky. Near the end a tranquil, waltz-like section, a brief theme and variations, surfaces, and then another reminiscence of the first movement leads back to the final restatement and short coda. The concerto was written for my good friend Scott Ballantyne, inspired by his brilliant performances of my first Cello Concerto, both in concert and recording.
The two smaller pieces heard here are scored for larger forces. In A Summer Overture, my modern-day translation of the thirteenth-century English round ‘Sumer is icumen in’, all the forces of a large orchestra, with an augmented battery of percussion, reduce the canon to fragments, scatter the pieces far and wide, and finally reassemble them into a full-blown arrival of the original. The overture was written in 1997, the same year composer/playwright Frank Ledlie Moore agreed to write the libretto for an opera I had long wanted to compose, based on Aristophanes’ comedy Thesmophoriazusae (A Woman’s Festival). Moore was soon diagnosed with ALS, but despite the increasing difficulties of communication caused by his illness we managed to finish the first three of the four acts together before his death. The opera, Mother’s Day, is dedicated to his memory. In Moore’s radical reinterpretation of Aristophanes a group of working mothers plans to stage a protest in Washington, D.C., to try to persuade the president to become a mother herself so that she can more fully appreciate their concerns. Rondo Tarantella is the music for the finale of Act II, the climax of a series of comic episodes: here the president's husband disguises himself as a woman in order to infiltrate the demonstration.

Frank Ezra Levy


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