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Published: Thursday, 2/3/2011

Pianist to lecture, perform works by Mozart at BGSU

Pianist and early music specialist Robert Levin was part of a musical celebration of the 255th birthday of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the beloved composer and performer's hometown of Salzburg last week.

The solo recital was a highlight of Mozart Week, celebrated each year around the Jan. 27 birthday of the most famous resident of the quaint Austrian city.

The gig was in Mozart's own home, now a famed museum and performance space called the Mozarteum. And Levin was performing Mozart's music on Mozart's own piano.

"It was a goose-bump situation," Levin recounted by phone Saturday, back home in Cambridge, Mass., where he's Dwight P. Robinson, Jr., Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University.

"One never ceases to marvel at the instrument and its pedigree," he said. "It's generally considered to be the piano on which he premiered his great concertos. Looking down at those concavities in the keys," he said, pausing at the memory, "it takes a bit of self-control to perform on an instrument like that."

The Salzburg instrument is a fortepiano, a smaller, lighter ancestor of the modern piano Levin will use this weekend during his debut at Bowling Green State University for its Festival Series.

On his busy schedule Friday will be a master class at 2:30 p.m. and a lecture-presentation at 4:30 p.m. -- both free to the public in Bryan Hall of the Moore Musical Arts Center -- plus a ticketed solo recital at 8 p.m. in Kobacker Hall. Levin also will present a preconcert lecture at 7:15 p.m. Saturday in Kobacker.

Levin, a brilliant performer and dedicated scholar, is a major star in the small constellation of early music specialists. He has performed worldwide and recorded with Christopher Hogwood's Academy of Ancient Music.

He is repeating the program he performed in Salzburg at BGSU.

His Saturday recital will begin with Prelude (Fantasie) and Fugue in C Major, K. 394; Adagio in F Major; the unfinished Suite K 399, and Sonata in F Major, K 533, and go on.

Much of the program represents early work by Mozart, showing the composer's inspiration by Baroque giants such as J.S. Bach, Levin explained.

"His wife liked fugues and told him he should write fugues," he said, citing correspondence between Mozart, his wife, Constanze, and his sister, Nanner, that reveals both family dynamics and the composer's multitrack approach to writing music.

Study of the original scores revealed to Levin that Mozart frequently worked on several scores simultaneously.

"You can tell in his case the order in which he wrote things down in a score by the color of the ink," he said, explaining that in the 18th century ink was bought in small amounts and replacements often were of different tints. "When you are looking at a piano concerto and you see the shade of ink he used, then you look at other scores and see the same color, you realize he's composing nine pieces at the same time in his head," said Levin.

But, like many prolific composers, Mozart didn't always finish his music. That has provided Levin with another opportunity -- the chance to honor the composer by completing open-ended works appropriately. He'll do some of that while at BGSU.

Improvising, he says, "is a stylistic adventure. To speak in Mozart's brogue means you have to be aware of how he expresses himself and how he doesn't. I've made it a study of mine to take language of various composers and break it down."

While improvising, Levin says he frequently thinks of Toledo native Art Tatum, a giant of the jazz world whose own improvisations frequently sounded symphonic and often included quotes from classical piano masterpieces.

"Tatum had abilities that were so truly uncanny that when you start to listen to some of the things he does, it's like being in a dentist's office and getting a dose of nitrous oxide," he said. "His hands move so fast -- it's terrifying the same way that Mozart is terrifying."

In fact, Levin's final word on Mozart before this weekend: If Mozart had been born in the 20th century, he wouldn't have been a classical composer at all. "He would have been a Duke Ellington."

Tickets for the Saturday concert and lecture start at $17 at 419-372-8171 at the Moore Center Box Office.

Contact Sally Vallongo at: svallongo@theblade.com.

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