Making up Mozart: Noted musician Robert Levin to visit BGSU

Robert Levin will
perform and teach at BGSU (Photo: Herb Ascherman/courtesy Artra)

To be faithful to the music of Mozart takes more than being faithful to what’s written on the page.
That was a lesson Robert Levin learned while still an undergraduate at Harvard. He was attending a
workshop in Nice, France with the conductor Hans Swarowski when he asked a question about the
performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s piano concertos.
The conductor was frank. A performer could not be true to the music unless the musician improvised. After
all, that’s what the composer did. Sections were left in that are little more than sketches during which
Mozart would extemporize, and simply playing those sketches means presenting only a shadow of Mozart’s
Swarowski’s recording with the pianist Friedrich Gulda served as a model. "I listened to it and I
was thunderstruck by what he was doing," Levin said in a recent telephone interview from his office
at Harvard, where he now teaches.
Back on campus, Levin had the opportunity to try for himself. He was asked to play the organ part for a
performance of Mozart’s Requiem. That included an unfinished a sketch for a fugue.
He realized that if he was ever going to improvise on Mozart, he’d have to learn how to compose like him.
And though he understood "there are easier ways to make a complete fool of yourself" than
trying to complete a work by Mozart, he took on the task.
Even though he’d been studying music since he was a preschooler, he was not a music major at the time.
That changed, and he ended up writing his thesis on Mozart’s unfinished work. The thesis was published
and his career launched.
Levin will perform Mozart in a Festival Series concert Feb. 5 at 8 p.m. in Kobacker Hall on the Bowling
Green State University campus and speak on "Embellishment, Improvisation and Cadenzas in
Mozart" at 4:30 p.m. in Bryan Recital Hall in the Moore Musical Arts Center.
The concert will focus on Mozart’s relationship to the music of Handel, including his Suite K. 399, often
subtitled "in the style of Handel."
The piece was never completed, so Levin will present his own realization of the sarabande and possibly a
The program is similar to one he presented on Mozart’s birthday Thursday playing the composer’s own piano
at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria.
This is music, Levin said, that shows "the influence of earlier music but projects the shadow of
that influence onto the future," hinting not only at Mozart’s later work but to Beethoven.
It was at another Mozart celebration in Austria in 1987 that Levin was asked to improvise a fantasy on a
theme by Mozart.
This posed, Levin said, a couple problems. One, he would be playing for an audience of fellow performers
and listeners who knew their Mozart.
If he carried it off, they may very well assume he had composed it and memorized it.
So he decided he would fashion his fantasy from a theme randomly selected from one drawn from a basket
containing 50 themes as a way of asserting the authenticity of the performance. "I had never done
this before. It was pretty scary."
The performance was a success, and more people asked him to repeat it. It became something of "a
parlor trick," he said.
At concerts he would have audience members sketch out the theme, and then select one at intermission. At
the suggestion of his uncle, he would have the audience members write their name on the theme, and then
recognize the person for suggesting the theme.
"It was another way to legitimize it."
It was this same uncle, The 63-year-old Levin said, who was responsible for discovering Levin’s talents.
Levin’s parents loved music. The young Levin was fed a "constant diet of music" including
opera, the classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz, Broadway musicals and swing.
His father had a machine to make his own records and sent the uncle, a Juilliard grad who was studying in
Paris, a recording of young Robert singing an aria from "Don Giovanni," a selection from
"Oklahoma" and "Arkansas Traveller."
He’d been singing since he was a toddler and his parents reported "the guy’s singing all the
The uncle realized his nephew’s potential.
"Then he threw the book at me," Levin said remembering those early years. He was getting
training in theory other musicians only received in college.
Levin absorbed it so quickly that at age 12 his uncle took him to Paris to study with the legendary
pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, whose students include Aaron Copland, Philip Glass and Quincy Jones.
"She gave me the keys to the castle," he said. She provided him with musical tools he could use
no matter what direction his musical career took, lessons Levin has put to good use for the past
Reflecting back on the uncle who made that possible, he said: "it’s hard to be adequately
grateful" for such a gift.

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