On Wednesday, April 6, 2016, a captive audience was treated to a performance by acclaimed pianist Bruce Levingston, in Georgetown’s stunning Gaston Hall, the setting sun streaming through the stained glass windows.
Levingston, a Mississippi native, exudes southern charm. An elegant performer, he was passionate and intense in an unobtrusive way. Without bravado, Levingston has a powerful stage presence that never distracts from the music. Some artists seem to demand their audience’s attention with frenetic energy. But it takes a special artist like Levingston to invite his audience on a journey – in which one’s attention is given freely. He has a special ability to captivate not only the ears of his audience, but their hearts as well.
After each piece Levingston would stand for our thundering applause and give us a friendly smile, a humble bow of his head, and sometimes a bashful shrug. His programming and selections are tailored perfectly for him; I couldn’t see any other artist performing the pieces quite as well, with the same power, yet sensitivity.
As discussed recently in a moving and informative DCMetro TheaterArts interview, Levingston was invited to Georgetown University to present the DC Premiere of An American Citizen, commissioned by Composer Nolan Gasser, inventor of the Musical Genome Project. The piece pairs the musical composition with a film directed by Jarred Alterman who used works from Mississippian Artist Marie Hull to tell a series of stories and explore issues the politics of race.
Levingston is also the Founder and Artistic Director of the music foundation Premiere Commission, Inc., which has commissioned and premiered over 50 new works, and celebrated its 15th anniversary this year.
Levingston started the program with two contrasting pieces by Philip Glass; “Etude No. 2” and “Etude No. 6”. “Etude No. 2” was a magical and flowing piece, with rolling chords and deep bass notes. It moved along as if cresting on waves, getting more and more intense and then pulling back. With a sensitive touch, the music seemed to flow through Levingston.
He moved directly into “Etude No. 6” which started on a fast clip. It was high in emotional intensity with a more pronounced melody in comparison to the bass heavy “Etude No. 2.” Levingston’s dynamic variations and increasing tempo towards the end of the piece left me breathless.
Levingston took time to share the story behind his third selection, A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close II. Chuck Close, a famous artist, suffered from paralysis after a sudden rupture of a spinal artery after which time he learned to paint with a brush between his lips. Eventually he gained movement of his arms and began to paint more freely again. Close later painted a portrait of his long-time friend, composer Philip Glass.
Levingston had an opportunity to meet with Glass at an exhibition of Close’s works and asked if Glass would consider making a “portrait” of Chuck Close, using sound. Glass replied “If you’ll play it, I’ll write it.” A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close II was just as Levingston described it would be: soaring – bittersweet, yet triumphant. It evoked the sentiments of a personal struggle. It quickly shifted moods throughout, yet it all tied together.
A Philip Glass novice, I felt immediately grateful for the exposure to these three pieces. A lover of Bach and Mozart, the works of Glass added something dramatic and enriching to my usual listening experience. The pieces had all of the finesse and structure of Mozart with the added romance of later composers. I felt that I was taken on a journey – the pieces were evocative without taking a heavy emotional toll.
Levingston then enchanted the audience with Frederic Chopin’s “Nocturne in B-flat minor, Op. 9, No. 1.” Played with beauty, I found myself holding my breath, wanting to be held in time so the transcendent experience would not stop.
Finally, we heard the DC Premiere of Nolan Gasser’s An American Citizen, based on the famous 1936 painting of the same name by Marie Hull, which depicts Mississippian John Wesley Washington, a man born into slavery, as well as a number of Hull’s other subjects.
The accompanying film by Jarred Alterman was perfectly paced to the composition, contrasting between portraits and landscapes, darker parts of the music highlighting the intensity in the eyes of one sharecropper, and lightening up when falling upon the dancing eyes of John Wesley Washington; sharpening when focused on the gnarled hands of one man, and then mellowing as the film zoomed in on a landscape. Alterman took his time with the frames and the pacing, making creative choices with zooming, focus, and lens movement. The combination of film and music made the experience truly unique and I find it difficult to imagine the composition having the same emotional impact on the viewer without the accompanying film.
Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia joined Levingston onstage to discuss An American Citizen, as well as art, race, politics, and the artist Marie Hull. He asked exciting questions about Levingston’s knowledge of Marie Hull and her portrait subjects. For instance, Levingston shared that one portrait subject highlighted in An American Citizen has a living daughter in her 90’s, named Eva, with a fantastic memory.
Levingston arranged for her family to see the actual portrait of her father, a sharecropper. Eva took art lessons from Marie Hull, and recalled that her father was proud and didn’t want to be called a sharecropper, yet Marie Hull asked him to put on overalls and play the part for the portrait; she was trying to capture something. The subject asked if Marie Hull would give his daughter art lessons in return for sitting for the portrait. He wanted better for his family; there was humanity in these subjects. Levinston believes that Marie Hull’s story is important for people to hear and this led him to write a stunning biography about the artist – Bright Fields: The Mastery of Marie Hull.
President DeGioia opened the floor for questions. Elizabeth Baker, Georgetown Senior and classical musician, asked for suggestions on bridging the generational gap and bringing classical music to younger generations. Levingston mused that if Mozart lived in this era, he would be a great film composer because it is the medium of our time. He went on to say that "Music is a visual thing now, particularly with social media and YouTube – take advantage of what is great in our era and sense what is coming next – be daring and take some chances – package it in a way to reach everyone."
Elizabeth “Lizzie” Brevard, a Georgetown graduate (2014) from Mississippi, made a final comment that really got to the heart and soul of the evening. Having watched the film, listened to the music, studied Marie Hull’s art, Brevard was moved by the dignity within the subjects, saying, "What an incredibly poignant experience that these individuals, who very likely had limited education, are being given a voice…their story is being heard in 2016 at Georgetown University in Gaston Hall."
With misty eyes, Levingston strode across the stage to give Lizzie a warm embrace.
Haley Reeves Barbour, the 62nd Governor of Mississippi, (2004-2012), was also in attendance and finished by saying that Mississippi is very proud of Levingston.
I was indeed fortunate to go on this fascinating journey with Levingston and he has an appreciative following waiting with bated breath for his return to DC!