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A Little Offbeat Humor in Cyclical Explorations

The New York Times
May 13, 2011
by Steve Smith
Read on nytimes.com

Attending a concert by the pianist Bruce Levingston can feel a bit like showing up at a party at which you don't know most of your fellow guests. Don't hold it against him. Evidence indicates that Mr. Levingston mingles with ease in an exalted social stratum. Its members presumably help to support his nonprofit organization, Premiere Commission, which has financed the creation of some 40 new works; admirably, they also attend his concerts, greeting his efforts with exuberant response.

Mr. Levingston has found a soul mate in Colin Jacobsen: a young violinist who first performed as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic when he was 14, and whose resume includes adventurous work with the Silk Road Project, the string quartet Brooklyn Rider and the independent orchestra the Knights. At Zankel Hall on Thursday evening, they joined forces in the kind of recital for which each has become known: driven by ideas and filled with music old, new and well worth hearing.

Mr. Levingston, in particular, values illuminating connections among the pieces he programs. Here the themes, summarized succinctly from the stage by Mr. Jacobsen, were resonance and cyclical repetition. The first work played, a passacaglia for unaccompanied violin by the German Baroque maverick Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, was a germ for both notions. Mr. Jacobsen's account was spellbinding, elegantly paced and exactingly detailed.

The conclusion of Biber's "Rosary" Sonatas, a sequence of works intensely concerned with novel sonorities, the Passacaglia was a distant ancestor to a new piece on the program, Sebastian Currier's "Digital Mist," in which gestures played by Mr. Jacobsen and Mr. Levingston wafted among electronically conjured breezes and sighs. Dvorak's "Four Romantic Pieces" and Janacek's Sonata for Violin and Piano, which flanked Mr. Currier's work, showcased Mr. Jacobsen's most effusively lyrical playing, with attentive accompaniment from Mr. Levingston.

Mr. Levingston started the second part of the program alone, with another new work, "The Shadow of the Blackbird," by David Bruce, who drew inspiration for two linked movements of jittery rhythms and fragile melody from Schumann's evocative "Kreisleriana." Mr. Levingston's technique was at its best here, with nervous flutters dispatched evenly and cleanly.

Biber's ingenuity was eventually echoed once more in Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky's intentionally wacky Passacaglia, during which Mr. Levingston soberly pushed and plucked isolated piano notes while Mr. Jacobsen sawed frenetic arpeggios offstage. The concert's second half thus tied to its first, the duo ended with a fiery account of Astor Piazzolla's "Grand Tango," composed for Mstislav Rostropovich and transferred to violin by Sofia Gubaidulina.

After so much busywork, Mr. Levingston and Mr. Jacobsen reversed course for an eagerly demanded encore: Arvo Part's "Spiegel im Spiegel," a luminous meditation made entirely of lingering notes, consonant intervals and prayer.

Photo: Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times/Redux

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