LEVY: A Summer Overture. Symphony No. 3. Cello Concerto No. 2. Rondo Tarantella. Scott Ballantyne (cello), National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, Takuo Yuasa (conductor). Naxos 8.559234. (64′ 51″).
This is my first encounter with the music of Frank Ezra Levy. Born in Paris in 1930 of musical parents he moved with them to the safety of New York in 1939 as Europe came close to conflict. There he studied both composition and cello, the latter with Leonard Rose and Janos Starker. He then followed a dual career as a cellist with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and as a very active composer, his list of works including a large-scale opera, four symphonies and eight concertos. Mainly working in a tonal idiom and with a desire to make ready communication with his audience, A Summer Overture makes a pleasant, vivid and sunny beginning to a disc that contains two of his most significant scores. Premiered in 2002 the Cello Concerto is a welcome addition to the instrument’s repertoire, the dark and brooding opening movement leading to an elegant and restrained central movement where the soloist sings above an accompaniment that is often disruptive. Finally the cello takes charge in a noisy and virtuoso finale with percussion adding brilliant colours to the strong and pounding rhythms. The Third Symphony, in two movements, dates from 1989, the first in two very differing moods, the slow pulse of the opening growing to an anguished climax before linking to a mercurial finale full of catchy rhythms. Levy is his own man which makes guidance by similarity with others rather difficult, but if you enjoy early Shostakovich you are at least tuned to Levy’s period. Scott Ballantyne lacks nothing in sheer technical brilliance, and produces a finely spun tone in quieter moments. The Irish orchestra, with the outstanding Japanese conductor, Takuo Yuasa, has that knack of playing music for the first time with that surety and impact that usually comes from frequent performances. Here they provide all of the brilliance needed, and revel in the fiendish Rondo Tarantella. Excellent recorded sound. – From David’s Review Corner, December 2005
Naxos American Classics Series – The Works of Frank Ezra Levy
OK, Frank Ezra Levy is not exactly a name that jumps out at you, but he is one of the composers Naxos is showcasing in their “American Classics” series. And for good reason. Born in 1930, Mr. Levy has been composing music for the better part of seven decades. This album contains four of his works, mostly world premieres of short pieces and mostly written in the last few years. Things begin with his Summer Overture (1997), a sprightly affair with plenty of gusto to get the show rolling. That’s followed by the more substantial Cello Concerto No. 2 (2002), with soloist Scott Ballantyne. Levy is himself a cellist, so he knows the instrument. The opening Allegro shows a hint of melody, with orchestral support used discreetly, sometimes sounding like a chamber group. Levy calls his piece a “kaleidoscope construction,” and it certainly runs the gamut of emotional moods. The second movement Adagio works best, a lovely dialogue between soloist and orchestra. However, the final movement breaks out into such exhilarating jubilation, it’s hard to tell that it belongs in the same piece. Here you’ll find some nice percussive effects, with the cello, oddly, less dominant. The Rondo Tarantella (2003) is from an opera Levy composed called Mother’s Day, the abundance of percussion, drums, cymbals, you name it, emphasizing the music’s episodic, comic tone. Things close out with the brief, twenty-minute, two-movement Symphony No. 3 (1977). It’s the oldest work on the disc, written when the composer was a mere stripling lad of forty-seven. Again we hear the music’s kaleidoscope effect, with themes turning every which way and returning in different guises. The slow dirgelike opening sets the mood, but it eventually opens up to a lovely, sunny middle section with vaguely Scottish, pastoral inflections. Then, the symphony returns to a more somber tone, leading to a Vivace finale with marchlike cadences. Honestly, I think Levy may have improved with age. The Naxos sound displays modest but pronounced orchestral depth; a touch of hardness; a clean, well-balanced frequency range; some strong, well-focused bass outbursts; and clear, sparkling highs. It’s worth a listen. – John Puccio, The Sensible Sound
From Tempo 60 (237) 60-71 ® 2006 Cambridge University Press
I did not hold such reservations about Frank Ezra Levy (b 1930), another composer totally unfamiliar to me until this release and another CD of his Symphony No. 4 (see MMC 2021). The son of the Swiss Composer Ernst Levy, Frank Ezra Levy has his own distinctive style, very dynamic with clearly defined textures and colourful orchestration. This is evident immediately in the 1997 Summer Overture. Even more impressive is the Stravinskian Rondo Tarantella (2003). The composer speaks of his
neo-classical leanings, doublings in fourths and fifths and concern with melodic and rhythmic integrity of individual parts. The Third Symphony (1977) is an imaginative and varied work for quite small forces, yet with an expansive American feel, whilst the Cello Concerto No. 2 (2002) is a welcome addition to a still small corpus of such American concertos. These engaging and
varied releases are an important paragraph in an ongoing narrative which, hopefully, has many chapters yet to unfold. – Bret Johnson
Robert R. Reilly, Crisis Magazine, April 10., 2006
Naxos has also sponsored an American Classics series that is invaluable. Go to the Naxos USA Web site to see what it has done (www.naxos.com). I have covered many of these releases that have restored—or give to us for the first time—treasures from the likes of Samuel Barber, David Diamond, and George Rochberg. The American Classics series also contains some real surprises. I know and am fond of the music of Ernst Levy, a Swiss symphonist who immigrated to the United States. His son, Frank Ezra Levy (b. 1930), apparently followed in his father’s footsteps. This was news to me until Naxos released a CD with his Third Symphony, Cello Concerto, and two shorter works (Naxos 8.559234). These are highly accomplished, very attractive pieces that actually go beyond Levy Senior’s command of formal structures, given his predilection for the suite style. This music is receiving an overdue hearing in these excellent performances by the RTE National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, with cellist Scott Ballantyne, under Takuo Yuasa. This release epitomizes Naxos’s sense of adventure.
Music Web International, September 2006: David R. Dunsmore
I have to confess to not having heard of Frank Levy until I was sent this CD. From the beginning I’ve found listening to this well filled disc an enjoyable experience. Striking cover picture too “Opening” by Ulrich Osterlob who is a new name to me. A Summer Overture begins proceedings and unlike my colleague David Blomenberg it did remind me a bit of Copland’s Rodeo but not overtly so. It’s based on the mediaeval song much loved by madrigal singers and choirs Sumer is icumen in, and this has lead me to getting “Sumer is Icumen in” Medieval English Songs Hilliard Ensemble – Paul Hillier Harmonia Mundi HMC 1154 which is presently on my ” to listen to” pile! Expect a review some time before next summer – I hope! The Overture is a fun melodic piece and is very well played. Returning to this disc after a gap I was struck by the sound of orchestra and melodic invention. I think it would make a good overture at “The Last Night of the Proms”. Tremendous percussion making cheerful noise bring the piece to a lively climax. A great start to the disc and a good sampler!
Cello Concerto No. 2 commences with a haunting melody on the cello and is almost Sibelian before the small orchestra come in. Scott Ballantyne plays with real emotion and the orchestra responds. The great thing is that Levy produces melody and excitement. Nothing overstays its welcome so that it makes for a good listen. There’s an elegiac quality to the slow movement which balances the plaintive cello with woodwinds. I liked this piece and will be happy to return.
Rondo Tarantella is recently composed and is quite disturbing and restless compared to what has gone before. I’m grateful to learn that it has been used in Levy’s opera Mother’s Day as it gave me some background to what is going on. I found it slightly less accessible than the first two pieces but I’m sure repeated listening will pay dividends. I really must praise Naxos here because not only do they produce first class new music for around a £5.99 but also they give us great notes and a web-site from which to learn more. Both the notes and site are first class and are much easier than those of many other companies: Sony, DG and most of all EMI please take note! They even give us the web-site for the artist on the cover!
Symphony No. 3 has two movements. The Lento starts with a haunting melody before developing into variations. I found it intriguing and as with all the music on this disc I was struck by Levy’s melodic invention. He clearly understands the orchestra. Compared to many modern pieces – Sir Harrison Birtwistle et al – I didn’t wonder where the tune was or think I’d have to listen to it twenty times to get what’s going on. I do feel that it would be great to hear live and think that some people who find modern classical music beyond them would warm to this. The other thing is that there are no “long hours” here as there’s always something developing. The Symphony’s second movement Vivace brings this very enjoyable selection to a conclusion. Here again I’m impressed by mood swings – it’s not all brightness – there are shadows in the generally upbeat finale.
Congratulations to Frank Levy, Naxos, the splendid RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland and Takuo Yuasa, not forgetting the impressive Scott Ballantyne. More please!
David Wolman, Fanfare Magazine 2006
At Verizon Hall in Philadelphia, audiences thin out just before a newly composed piece is performed. You can see them slinking away into the dimly lit stairways. It’s the proverbial avoidance of plague. That’s why, ostensibly, Leopold Stokowski programmed new pieces in the first half of his concerts, a form of musical false imprisonment the ends of which justified the means. Today, persistent loathing of the new is a syndrome that seems uniquely attached to the composers of so-called serious music, as opposed to the pop world where what’s new is all there is and heavy metal seems to breach the boundaries of the avant-garde. This disconnect makes me wonder why orchestras don’t schedule more music like that of Frank Ezra Levy (b. 1930), the subject of this Naxos American Classics CD.
Levy, the son of the Swiss composer, Ernst levy, who wrote 15 symphonies, is a cellist and former member of the St. Louis SO, and as prolific as his illustrious father—he’s written 88 works, including an opera, a cantata, four symphonies, and eight concertos.
Levy’s music is mostly fun, but with heft where necessary. The first selection, A Summer Overture (1997), is just that—summery. It makes me think of main streets and marching bands, outdoor fairs and church picnics. You might think of Ives, but Levy’s music is not nearly as dissonant or complex, rather more like a nostalgic bow to Ravel. I think it’s time to stop excusing ourselves for liking music that sounds like, well, something we can recognize. That isn’t to say I don’t enjoy esoteric microtonal stuff with the best of them, but there does seem to be an embarrassment that goes along with tonal, diatonic music. I am reminded of a dinner I attended with a group of SoHo painters. I happened to mention that I liked Andrew Wyeth. You would have thought I had confessed to serial dilettantism. Levy is to music what Wyeth is to painting. They’re both alive and they’re realists. And they both chose a path that eschewed experimentation for its own sake. But there is room for everybody—Serialists and Surrealists, Microtonalists and Minimalists—the diversity of new music spares its listeners ridicule for their preferences.
The next selection on this CD, Levy’s Cello Concerto No. 2 (2002), is a more somber work, and it is clear that a cellist wrote it. It sits well on the instrument, as you would expect, and it is a good piece, a perfectly respectable addition to the cello repertoire. Scott Ballantyne’s performance is excellent.
Levy’s Rondo tarantella (2003) reminds us of Paul Dukas, and displays enjoyable orchestral coloring making use of the entire palette including some interesting antiphonal effects presented in a galloping tempo that runs its inevitable course. The RTÉ NSO of Ireland under Takuo Yuasa does an excellent job of energizing the score. The sound quality is good.
So here is a living composer whose music is fun and substantial—why aren’t we hearing more of it? Perhaps it suffers from “second performance syndrome,” the well-known malady in which composers of new music rarely get a second hearing of their works. Naxos deserves credit for shining light on someone who’s been here for a long time, but is still new by virtue of having been overlooked.
Deseret Morning News, Sunday, July 16, 2006; 4 Orchestral Works of Frank Levy Wonderfully Showcased
Despite numerous recordings and performances around the country, the music of Frank Ezra Levy is still not widely known. Levy is a composer whose music is grounded in solid technique, resourceful orchestral writing and a well-developed sense of form. He writes music that is lyrical and frequently witty, yet also intense, substantial and sophisticated. Known principally for his chamber music, Levy has also written a fairly large body of orchestral music. Naxos’ 2005 release of four of Levy’s orchestral works is a wonderful and representative sampling of his style.
From the sharply drawn “A Summer Overture,” based on the medieval English canon “Sumer is icumen in,” and “Rondo Tarantella,” taken from his opera “Mother’s Day,” to the impassioned outpourings of the Second Cello Concerto and the Symphony No. 3, the CD paints a well-rounded picture of Levy’s creativity.
Underscoring all of Levy’s works is a keen lyricism that gives his music definition and meaning. Even in the concerto and symphony, his two most powerful and emotionally charged works on this album, Levy introduces an element of melodicism that defines his musical thoughts. Cellist Scott Ballantyne gives a forceful reading of the concerto. His tour-de-force performance captures the drama and passion of the music with lucidity. His playing is fluid, dynamic and compelling.
Conductor Takuo Yuasa, leading the RTE National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, brings out the lighthearted charm of “A Summer Overture” and “Rondo Tarantella” radiantly. On the other hand, Yuasa imbues his interpretation of the symphony with an earnestness that is wonderfully nuanced and descriptive. – Edward Reichel