Teachers Who Changed Us: Pianist Beth Levin Remembers Leonard Shure
With two momentous bicentennials ongoing this year—those of Chopin and Schumann—one would think all other anniversaries would fall to the wayside. The friends, students and devoted admirers of a man one century younger, however, have shifted their focus to the 100th birthday anniversary of their late beloved mentor and respected New England Conservatory professor, Leonard Shure.
On July 24, Jerome Rose, artistic director of Mannes School of Music’s International Keyboard Institute and Festival and former piano student of Shure’s himself, will open up the stage to a string of performances put on by Shure students in memorial of their teacher. Among the Shure pupils participating in his forthcoming memorial are a host of accomplished performers including Jerome Rose, Ursula Oppens, David del Tradici, Victor Rosenbaum, Phillip Moll, Beth Levin, and Ted Shure. The festival will also include master classes and a session on the recorded legacy of Leonard Shure to complement the New England Conservatory’s planned release of a historical CD of 15 years of live Shure performances.
“By the end of this year … the general public will once again be able to hear his work,” said Ted Shure, his son and student.
What is truly remarkable about this pianist and teacher is that even in the highly competitive field of performance, he managed to convey the importance of community, evident in the fact that his students seem to share great affection not only for him but for each other as well.
For Beth Levin, who will perform a set of Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” at the memorial, this quality has had a lasting impact on her personal and professional life. “I am most deeply connected and in touch with the musicians whom I met when studying under Shure,” she said. “To name a few, Dan Gorgoglione, Tony Tommasini, David Del Tredici, Ted Shure, Claudia Stevens, Eliane Lust, Sara Steinhardt, Gary Fisher, Benjamin Zander … fabulous musicians all. And I am leaving out many.”
In addition to facilitating personal connections between his students, Shure was also sensitive to the individual needs and music development of his students. Levin still remembers meeting him for the first time at the Boston Conservatory, upon the recommendation of her former teacher:
“I basically knocked on Mr. Shure’s door, and he welcomed me in. I began playing for him, and he suggested we start right away. One of the things we worked on was the Brahms D Minor Piano Concerto. For me, Shure embodied the highest ideals of music making. He was accessible and lovable. When he prepared me to perform the Brahms Concerto, I always felt how much he wanted me to understand the music and to succeed. One day he simply said, ‘You are ready.'” Before moving to Boston, Levin, who was born and raised in Philadelphia, studied at the prestigious Curtis Institute under Rudolf Serkin. It was her private life that ended up bringing her to Shure.
“I had been studying with Rudolf Serkin and was about to be married and moving to Boston. Serkin suggested Shure to me as a possible teacher—from the frying pan into the fire, one might say.” Comparing the two men, Levin found them both similarly orthodox in their interpretation of written music.
“I don’t know who was more fiercely loyal to the score, Serkin or Shure, but the score of a Schubert or Beethoven Sonata was their bible. Mr.Shure did not easily give you answers—he would ask you ‘why’ and expect you to come up with solutions for playing a phrase a certain way.”
An active performer but also a family woman, Levin found a way to entwine her two worlds harmoniously. In Boston she was married and had children yet continued to travel and perform professionally.
“My desire for children and the desire to play were such strong urges in me that I had to find a way to make it work. Now my children are independent, but when they were younger, I certainly felt the push and pull of family and career.” Another move brought about another teacher’s influence.
Levin’s next great inspiration was Brooklyn’s Dorothy Taubman, the piano teacher who became famous for developing an approach to technique that incorporates the most natural and efficient, yet specific, movements at the piano. What started out as a coincidental meeting ended up in a five-year student-teacher relationship and, said Levin, in a new developmental direction of her pianistic ability. While Levin herself was not among the many injured pianists Taubman had, through her remedial approach, cured, she enjoyed Taubman’s insight nonetheless:
“One summer after my years with Shure I was preparing to play Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein Sonata’ at a Beethoven Festival on Long Island, where Dorothy Taubman was giving a master class that same weekend. I played for her and became her student. It helped that I was living in Park Slope, Brooklyn at the time, only a few blocks from the grand lady. I had five good years with her. Until then my teachers had mainly dealt with interpretation of the score; Mrs. Taubman analyzed the how-to down to a science and made lessons a life-changing experience. Nothing escaped her searching mind and she imparted that to her students.”
Many performers, during their education, develop their musical personality by drawing from the inspiration of several sources. Beth Levin makes for a fascinating manifestation of how these influences—in her case, particularly remarkable ones—harmonize to create something unique. They all add up—sometimes even through essentially conflicting contributions.
In addition to performing as a soloist and chamber musician, Levin is herself teacher at the Brooklyn Conservatory. “I have a small class of students. Teaching is the noblest tradition and certainly all of my teachers did perform as well,” Levin said. “I think of it as a crucial part of musical life.” A member of the Music From Marlboro program (an offshoot of the Marlboro Music School and Festival and the Curtis Institute), Levin has worked with pianist Paul Badura-Skoda; violinist Sandor Vegh, founder of the renowned Vegh Quartet; and bassist Julius Levine. She has appeared in other chamber music venues as well, accompanying Raphael Hillyer of the Juilliard Quartet and flautist Paula Robinson.
In her young adulthood, Levin performed as a concert pianist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, led by Arthur Fiedler; the Seattle Symphony, led by Milton Katims; and the Boston Philharmonic, led by Benjamin Zander. She founded and played with the Trio Borealis for ten years, with whom and traveled extensively through Spain, Iceland, Serbia, and Turkey. Levin has appeared in broadcast interviews and performances on public radio in New York, Chicago, and Boston, and conducted Master classes at New York University and The College of William and Mary. In the New York area, she has given recitals at the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts, Steinway Hall, Yamaha, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Perhaps most striking about Levin as pianist is the personal quality she seems to bring to her performances. As The Boston Globe’s Richard Dyer put it, “Over the years, Levin has transformed herself. The flame within [her] still burns with undimmed intensity, but now there is warmth as well as blinding light.”
In 2008 Levin recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations, released by Centaur Records, and now plans a series of performances and a recording of Beethoven’s extended late work, the Diabelli Variations, to be released by Centaur Records at the end of this year.
“The years working with Shure were life-changing and whenever I listen to him play I remember the times and his uncompromising, loving presence,” Levin said. “I hope that the memorial in this, his 100th birthday year will trigger a resurgence of his artistry.”