November 11, 2015
Todd Levy: Intimate Brahms
New World Symphony clarinet alumnus Todd Levy returns this week as a soloist in this Sunday's Chamber Music Concert "Intimate Brahms." He performed with NWS during the Inaugural Season and summer tours and subsequently was a Fellow for multiple seasons.
Levy holds the position of Principal Clarinet at the Milwaukee Symphony. He is also Principal Clarinet during the summer season for the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra. And he is on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Peck School of the Arts.
We asked Todd to share his thoughts on the featured work for this weekend's performance.
"What does it mean to play the Brahms Clarinet Quintet?
"For a clarinetist, the Brahms Clarinet Quintet stands on Holy ground... a piece so great, many non-clarinetists feel it may be one of the very best pieces he ever wrote. That's a lot of responsibility for any performer to attempt one of the greatest works by one of the greatest composers! Playing the piece, especially performing the piece can be a religious event, but why? Why can a performance of any piece, especially this one, move people to feel things in such a deep way?
"Well, there are many reasons of course, but the inspiration of Brahms to understand the possibilities of the clarinet in such a varied way in the piece certainly must be close to the top of the list. His inclusion of some of his most sublime writing in the Adagio, alternating with Gypsy writing for the clarinet in the middle of the same movement... groundbreaking doesn't quite describe that. And yet as we see with much of his writing, especially the later clarinet works (Clarinet Trio, Quintet, and two sonatas), his ability to contrast material in such unique ways puts these pieces in a special category for him. The clarinet artistry of Richard Muhlfeld must have been extraordinary to inspire Brahms in such unique ways, and especially at a point in his career when he was almost retired!
"The Quintet itself is often viewed as an autobiography, or a look back at one's life. Listening to the piece gives one the sense of a real journey, and hearing the material the Brahms created to describe this journey is powerful, sublime, lyrical, witty, all in one package. It differs from other pieces to me in that it really requires the performers to dig deep to find raw emotion, of various forms, and put it out there without affect or self-consciousness in order that the audience really have the experience which this piece is capable of giving them.
"My own personal experience with this piece began at the age of 13, when as luck would have it, one of our neighbors who had chamber music gatherings at his house on the weekends invited me over to play through the Brahms and Mozart Clarinet Quintets. He himself was an incredible violinist and someone I only knew as a family friend of my grandparents. He was very generous to allow me to find my way through such a monumental work at an age when I probably had no business doing so, but he was just such a generous and guiding musician. To our family, he was just Iso, but only later did I discover that he was Iso Briselli, the child prodigy brought here from Russia by Carl Flesch to be part of the very first class at the Curtis Institute, and for whom the Barber Violin Concerto was written. These readings including me went on for many years, until I went off to Juilliard, but how incredibly fortunate I was to have had this kind of exposure to such a monumental work.
"The Fellows and I are having fun discovering the possibilities of what this piece has to offer, and we look forward to presenting this incredible work on Sunday afternoon."