Diary Entries

Beth Levin

[January 2005.]

December 9, 2004

Emily Howard came over to rehearse my songs for the New Collective Series. Emily belongs at the Met. She has it all — range, power, beauty of tone — and she can act. Imagine my gratification at writing a few miniatures on Japanese poems and having her bring them to life.

On a COLD winter’s day, Emily, never the conformist, wore no coat. After a few sips of coffee, we began. She didn’t mind that I gave her no more than a sketch to work from. The poems themselves are short with much to infer from the absence of words, from the spaces between the lines:

This morning I will not
comb my hair.
It has lain
Pillowed on the hand of my lover.
Yamabe no Akahito (700-740)

I may live on until
I long for this time
In which I am so unhappy,
and remember it fondly.
Fujiwara no Kiyosuke (1104-1177)

No, the human heart
Is unknowable
But in my birthplace
The flowers still smell
The same as always.
Ki no Tsurayuki (884-946)

She and I discussed the poems, digging around for the mood that would tie words to music. Emily portrayed the woman in the first poem as just waking, reliving the passion of the night before and relishing the word “lover.” With her own long black mane, Emily seemed to embody her.

Here and there she asked me for changes to which I consented. After all, she must feel free to sing. I asked her opinion about my choice of harmony on the word “fondly” in the second poem. I wanted it to be just right: startling and ambiguous. In the final song, I asked for a starker contrast between the first statement — “No, the human heart / Is unknowable” — and the sweeter, more lilting conclusion. With barely a suggestion, Emily was able to sense the drama and convert the poems to song, and thus the songs to poetry.

I offered her a long blue coat for the journey home. She deserves ermine.


December 26, 2004

It occurs to me that I’m juggling a lot of music. I’m no Yo-Yo Ma. I’m not even Lulu Ma. But, having said yes, I find myself in the middle of several projects. To be asked is sweet. When you’re only as good as your last concert and convinced that your most recent performance may be your last, the offer of a piano on stage isn’t easily dismissed.

In two weeks I travel to Ankara and Istanbul to perform and teach. The program will include solo American repertoire and music for voice and piano. A month ago I called up David Del Tredici and asked him for a work I might take on tour. He sounded delighted and sent me an album from which I chose “Ballad in Yellow (after Lorca).” It’s a jazzy work, operatic, full of color and imagination. I first performed it last weekend to affirming response. I think it will sit well alongside Gershwin’s Preludes and a tone poem of Charles Griffes.

Vista Lirica, my trio ensemble, will step out for the first time on February 6th, two weeks after my return from Turkey. We are presenting works of Beethoven, Brahms, Zemlinsky and Bruch. The piano parts are deep, hefty and often beladen with notes. If only some artist-magus could sketch me a few new hands!

In June I give a solo recital at the new Yamaha Salon in NYC, a lovely space with an impressive pick of instruments. The program includes Beethoven’s Op. 109, Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, three of Scriabin’s preludes and the Del Tredici work, by then well-seasoned from touring. Recently, George McGuire of the Schnabel Foundation, passing by my building, heard me practicing. He left his number with a neighbor and asked that I call. I did and was invited to lunch to discuss the idea of performing Schnabel’s concerto, a somewhat obscure work that needs to be heard. I suppose I could have said, “I’m sorry, I’m busy at the moment with tour music and 50,000 sixteenth-notes of Max Bruch.” My musician’s sense took precedence, and I agreed.

To Yo-Yo, it’s a drop in the sea. For me it’s a lulu.


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