Tea and Alchemy

Beth Levin

[April 2003.]

One very good and convenient thing about performing a modern composer’s music is one’s ability to kvetch directly to the source. Having received on Monday Steven R. Gerber’s Two Intermezzi for Piano, I straightaway panicked. Those stratospheric ledger lines! That exhausting dance of sostenuto, soft and damper pedaling! Thus my email:

Hi, Steve. Thanks for these excellent pieces. They delight and inspire. A couple of niggling points. I am not the organist at St. Peter’s. The footwork is daunting. And while we’re about it, couldn’t you have scored the high notes a bit clearer? Beth.

On top of it all, I was down with the flu, my thermometer reporting 104, in other words, in no condition for new information. Steven was gracious in his reply but probably thinking, What a lazy, ungrateful pianist! Later that day, after medicating myself with ginger tea and Jewish penicillin (chicken soup), I fell asleep in an armchair and dreamt of emailing composers whose works I’d be performing in an upcoming recital.


Beloved Ludwig,

The brilliance of your 32 Variations in C Minor astounds me. My only wish is to realize each phrase’s potential, as well as the music’s overarching structure. Could I trouble you for a few guiding principles? Your faithful servant, Beth Levin

Dear Faithful,

As anyone can see, my markings are clear. They leave no doubts as to my intentions. Don’t improvise. Don’t stray an inch. When I write leggiermente in variation II, guess what — I mean leggiermente! When I say fp, I mean a sudden change of dynamics and not a gradual lessening. The structure of the theme in 3/4 peaking at measure six on the subdominant should be kept intact throughout. No monkey business! And for God’s sake, don’t overdo the pedaling. Just the other day, I heard a lad attempt the “32,” and I couldn’t tell an arpeggio from a cloudburst. Clarity, truth and adherence to my markings, these are the instructions I leave you with. Cautious good tidings, Ludwig.


Dearest Frederic,

Your fourth Ballade in F Minor unfolds like an epic poem recited by angels. The coda is of such savage beauty that I fear I may combust on reaching the final chords. Please enlighten me as to your thoughts on the progression of the theme as it transforms and transforms again. With devotion, Beth Levin.

Ma Petite,

As you may know, I practically invented the ballade so as to have a new way of presenting my thematic material not in sonata form, but rather in a freer, more improvisational context. Look at the work as you would at Bach. I delight in the middle voices. Even when the harmony is thick and the notes gallop, stay true to the voicing. Don’t be afraid to bring out the important line, allowing the others to recede. Make decisions. Some of the music is ferocious, but when the melody becomes tender, look to poetry, to the sweetest of human emotions, and make them sound throughout the hall. Reach deeply into your soul. The colors are there. The Ballades aren’t easy but they will bring rewards. Au revoir, Frederic.

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