performances on this CD, digitally remastered from the
original reel-to-reel recordings, are from Rhoda Pinsley Levin's solo recital
tour of 1963 and subsequent repertoire. She performed these and other
pieces at numerous recitals in New York and Massachusetts between January
1963 and October 1970. During that time, she expanded her usual
repertoire from the Baroque and Classical periods by taking on the challenge
of Romantic and
contemporary works in this collection. This occurred during what turned
out to be the last seven years of her life, tragically cut short by cancer at
the age of forty-one.
teacher at Netcong High School (New Jersey),
"Think of me when you play your Scarlatti," wrote
Miss Pinsley's fiancé Harvey J. Levin in 1954, on one of the
rare occasions when they were geographically apart. Scarlatti and
Beethoven were her home turf, even at a time when she'd suspended piano study and concertizing for a Masters in Music Education at Columbia and a more pragmatic
career as a teacher of choral music and piano. That enduring bond to
Scarlatti and Beethoven is evident in her 1963 recital's opener of three Sonatas by Scarlatti and Beethoven's Variations Op. 34. By that
time, she'd resumed piano study with Morton Estrin after a ten-year
hiatus. "She was reluctant to extol her virtues...[but] had nothing to be
modest about," remembers Estrin. "Her performance was clean and
intelligent...excellent qualities in her
Schubert's Fantasy in
C Major is "a real knuckle-buster," as Estrin describes it, one that Mrs.
Levin mastered "to great success." This powerful performance served as a
fitting closing for the first half of her program during her 1963 recital
tour. (It's no wonder her "knuckles" might have needed a
Her return to performing had also been precipitated
by a dramatic change in her lifestyle. In 1959 she'd given up
schoolteaching for childrearing. In that environment, she felt compelled
to redirect her artistic energy, and now had the time to do
so. The sudden death of her mother months before her recital tour probably
gave her an additional need to move forward, musically or otherwise.
first performance of a modern work, Mrs. Levin chose one by a friend, Robert
Kurka. Kurka had died of leukemia six years earlier at the age of
thirty-five. Mrs. Levin's husband Harvey had first met Kurka while both were
serving in the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (later reorganized as the CIA)
in Japan in 1946. They became close friends, and Mr. Levin introduced Kurka to his wife (music educator May Kurka) while all three were earning their
Masters at Columbia. His most celebrated work was the opera The Good Soldier Schweik, completed during the
later stages of his illness and produced after his death.
My parents thought highly enough of him to middle-name me (their first and
only child) after him. My mother's performance of his piano sonata even
influenced my own early composing.
In April 1963, her performance of Kurka's Sonata Op. 20 No. 1 was
received enthusiastically by an audience of over 200 concertgoers. The Westbury Times reported that "a highlight
of the concert was the presentation of flowers to her by the daughter of
composer Robert Kurka..."
Having opened the second half of her program with
that departure into modern music, Mrs. Levin returned to more familiar musical
ground with works by Chopin and
Liszt. Following her tumultuous finale of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12,
she performed encores by Paradies and Brahms. Since neither was part of
the printed program, the identity of the Paradies piece and its composer
presented a mystery when this collection was compiled for CD. An uncommon
composer and work whose identity stumped even one of Mrs. Levin's piano
colleagues, Toccata in A Major by
Paradies was ultimately identified by my searching through the Rhoda
Levin Piano Literature Collection maintained by Hofstra University's Music
Department Library, carefully catalogued by my father and librarians over thirty
years earlier. Intermezzo Op. 119 No. 3 by
Brahms was more easily identified. It was one of several pieces I'd
vividly recalled her rehearsing at home, where it was heard throughout the
house, and I'd later recognized its score while searching through piano pieces
to study at music school. Perhaps more than any other, it's a piece I've
always associated with her -- even as a child, before I knew what it was I was
Robert Kurka, with wife May and daughter Mira
A similar challenge was posed by the printed
program's lack of "Longo" numbers for each of the Scarlatti Sonatas, necessary
for identifying each piece. They were obtained by searching through piano
scores and record albums. For the liner notes, Mrs. Levin's personal
archives served a similar function by providing pertinent facts, dates and
quotes (in addition to personal accounts solicited from some of her former
teachers and colleagues.)
In 1966, Mrs. Levin
developed a new program of works, which she performed for her recital tour
that year. It consisted of the last five pieces in this CD collection (along
with her revival of Brahms' Intermezzo Op. 119 No. 3.) In some ways, it was
the culmination of two years of change. Following her 1963 recital tour, we
had moved to Cambridge for a year, where she'd performed at Harvard and for
its esteemed Gilbert & Sullivan Players, while supervising their music.
Returning to Westbury in 1964, we moved again the following year to a larger
house in Garden City with a larger studio, where she continued her piano
teaching and resumed her performance work under Vivian Rivkin.
Levin's studio, 1968
She drew from her 1966 and 1963 programs for various performances over the
next four years -- even while battling lupus, cancer and physical disability
confining her to crutches, and enduring the deaths of her piano teacher and
younger sister. She also continued raising me and served as vice president
of the Hofstra-sponsored Pro Arte Symphony Orchestra League. Her last
performance was in October 1970, four months before her death. Rather than
hindering her, those life challenges seemed to give her music more meaning.
Nor did she ever lose her sense of humor. Pianist Blanche Abram, who coached
her during the last three years of her life, remembers "the combined
strength of her intellectual and expressive abilities always evident" and
"her delight at each new insight... It was an inspiration to me."
Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, which opened
Mrs. Levin's 1966 program, might seem an unlikely theme or message to be
chosen by a Jewish solo musician. Yet, it was completely in character
with Mrs. Levin to gravitate towards a piece despite any social or religious
connotation. Like her husband, she was very much a citizen of the
world, who also had me celebrate Christmas each year to bond with our
Christian community and friends.
In addition to that program's regular repertoire of Bach, Chopin and Brahms, she embarked on another modern work,
Gian-Carlo Menotti's Ricercare and Toccata, on a
theme from The Old Maid and the Thief. Menotti had long been a favorite
composer of hers. In the early 1950s, not long after its world premiere on
television, she had selected, directed and performed piano on Menotti's
Christmas opera Amahl and The Night
Visitors for a public school production -- a challenging project for
youngsters that received extensive coverage and praise in the local press.
I was raised on her record album of that opera. She also took me to a New
York City performance of Menotti's 1968 opera The Globolinks. Given her unusual
affinity for Menotti despite a general discomfort with modern music, it seems
apropos that she chose one of his pieces and closed out her career as a pianist
with it (just as it closes this CD collection.) "She told me three years
ago she was living on borrowed time," said Edward N. Beck, manager of the
Pro Arte Symphony Orchestra, shortly after her death in
February 1971. "But she just went on about her business and there was no
complaining from her about it."
Mrs. Levin was honored by Oberlin Conservatory of
Music, Harvard University, and Hofstra University, which includes the
Pinsley Levin Endowed Award for Excellence in Musical Performance. Her
achievements were featured in numerous newspaper articles and touted by
composers Gabriel Fontrier and Elie Siegmeister. Still, as a
pianist, she was a paradox. She was exceptionally talented, highly
trained, technically proficient and musically sensitive.
Her playing didn't merely impress listeners but deeply moved them as
well. Yet, her humility prevented her from ever being
content in the role of solo concert pianist. Her piano work had begun with lessons at the age of four, and seen her through
New York City's High School of Music and Art, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, the
national music honor society Pi Kappa Lambda, national touring and radio work as
pianist in the Oberlin Woodwind Ensemble, and as accompanist in a slew of other
capacities over the years. But she didn't live long enough to
further develop her concertizing. "The good really died young in her case," says
In Oberlin Woodwind Ensemble. "We affectionately called her 'fingers Pinsley'
because of her fine technical prowess," said director George E. Waln.
More than by public honors or published praise,
her musicianship is best summed up by several of her mentors and
colleagues. Beryl A. Ladd, one of her piano professors at Oberlin,
characterized her playing as having "not only...all the traditional skills of
speed, articulation, clarity, but...a wonderful sensitivity to tone and
phrase...[that] turns notes into something that lives and breathes...
[The] music is alive... There is no getting away from this cleanness and
clarity -- this freshness -- it is like standing on the top of a
mountain." Mrs. Levin's colleague Carol Block Whited described her
performance as having "a clarity and depth like that of fine wine... Her
soul shined through her fingertips, and there was a lot of beauty in everything
she played, whether it was solo music, accompaniment, or chamber music."
Pianist Audrey Schneider considered Mrs. Levin "one of those rare musicians who
performed at the highest professional level without ever losing sight of the
fact that the music was more important than she or her ego was. She always
listened with extraordinary care, whether the performer was a student, a
colleague, a concert artist...or herself. Her essential modesty and
unwavering standards never allowed her to be overconfident or complacent.
She sought and achieved ever-increasing mastery, not for her own glory, but
because that was what the music deserved!"