2018 Gilmore Artist is not one to stay silent in the face of current events

There are no walls between 2018 Gilmore artist Igor Levit, his music, and the rest of the world.

Levit says it's an artist's right to stay silent about current events if they wish.

But anyone who says he should just stick to playing the piano, and keep his mouth shut about the U.S. president or the rightward nationalist turn in his native Europe, as some have suggested, should be prepared to hear exactly what's on his mind.

"It is absolutely ludicrous to imagine that any citizen, any human being should not speak out, whatever he does (for a career)," Levit says from his home in Berlin. Those encouraging silence might as well just "wrap up whatever democracy is and flush it down the toilet." 

Eighteen-year-old Glenlivets

Igor Levit was born 31 years ago in Russia. He started on the piano at three and was soon performing concerts in his hometown of Nizhny Novgorod. When he was eight his family moved to Germany to find better educational opportunities for him and his sister. There, Levit studied with masters at various prestigious music schools.

This path led him to major competition wins in the early 2000s, three albums in the past decade, and the chance to sip some high-quality Scotch in a London bar with the Gilmore director Dan Gustin.

On a 2016 December night, Levit had given a Beethoven recital at London's Wigmore Hall, had gone through the rituals of the after-show reception, and was on his way to the hotel to crash exhaustedly to sleep. 

But in the taxi, he got a call from the executive director of Switzerland's Lucerne Symphony, Numa Bischof-Ullmann, who told Levit he needs to meet at a bar with someone. 

The pianist was tired and he had a morning flight to catch. He wasn't in the mood to meet mysterious strangers at a bar. But Bischof-Ullmann insisted. Levit redirected his taxi, went to the bar. Sitting at the bar was Gustin.

"It was very unexpected, to put it mildly. Very funny," Levit says. He'd gotten to know Gustin when Levit played Kalamazoo as a Gilmore Young Artist the previous year.

"I was really amazed to see him, on so many levels. First of all, I really like him, and I didn't see it coming at all," he says.

"It" was the news that Gustin, Bischof-Ullmann, and other jurors in the Gilmore Artist Award committee had been secretly following Levit's performances, and after his recital that night decided that he should be named 2018 Gilmore artist. 

The $300,000 award is non-competitive -- in other words, instead of knowingly competing for it, pianists are secretly judged for their regular concert and recital performances.  

Levit says,"My first reaction was, 'what the hell are you doing here?' He says, 'Well, why don't you just take a seat?' So I took a seat, and then he presented the news."

Gustin writes in an email about the night, "We had all heard Igor perform a number of times... but this concert was the tipping point—we all agreed (no vote taken!) that he was our 2018 Gilmore Artist!"

"The others had departed and I was waiting for him in the bar," Gustin writes. "I asked him if he wanted a drink. He says, 'No, it’s late, and I have a morning flight tomorrow.' So we sat together, and I laid the news on him. 

"He sat there for a few moments, and then says, 'I think I’ll have that drink now!' We both shared a couple of 18-year old Glenlivets, and laid out the plans for the months ahead. It wasn’t easy, but we kept the Award a secret until its announcement this January."

Levit laughs at the memory of "a couple whiskeys.... It was really deeply moving and touching and beautiful."

A risk-taker

Levit says that he's "deeply honored" to receive the award.  

Of the pot, $50,000 can be spent as he wishes, and $250,000 is to go towards his career.

Where could this take his career?

"Don't ever ask me the question! I don't like predicting the future. I like the here and today. Asking me of where it will take me, rarely will lead to a satisfactory answer. No idea! But -- you're speaking to a very happy guy, indeed."

Levit goes his own way. Along with Bach and Beethoven, he performs modern and new works, such as the social/political themed compositions of Frederic Rzewski. He collaborated with artist Marina Abramovic in a recital of Bach's "Goldberg" Variations where the audience sat in deck chairs for 30 minutes with noise-canceling headphones on, as Levit and piano moved slowly down a runway track, before he began playing.

Levit takes risks. "All the time! But they don't feel like risks. I do what I think is not only right, but necessary, and whenever I feel urgency to do something, I do it. Not only in my artistic, but daily life. So when I feel the urgency to do something, I just go for it, whatever it takes."

2018 Gilmore Artist Igor Levit'Pianist of the Resistance'

He went for it at a Nov. 9, 2016, concert in Brussels, Belgium. Before playing, he spoke to the audience, saying, "Yesterday, the greatest economic power in the world has freely elected a bigot, an opportunist, an angry and dangerous man as their new president...."

This isn't something that happens in classical concerts. Performers typically make sure to take their audience on an escape into a world of centuries-old music, not give them opinions on current events, no matter how earth-shaking.

Levit then nailed his 11/9/16 statement to the top of his Twitter page. He spoke about more than just the election of Donald Trump; his concern was also for the right-ward, nationalistic shift in European politics. 

"And I know, life isn't a concert hall," he said that night. "But music is life, we are here together, you listen to me, I listen to you. Listening to each other -- this is civilization! The great music we are sharing creates a great bond between us, and reminds us of the best that human life can create and share together."

This speech got him tagged by the New York Times as the "Pianist of the Resistance". The Times quoted him as saying, "the idea that art is an excuse for not engaging is utterly ridiculous." What did he mean by that?

"I would double down on that," Levit says. "As we all know, art is -- for artists of any kind -- is a very comfortable sort of momentum, pursuit of things that relate to a certain value, a certain ideal," he says. 

Artists devote their lives to the ideals and values of art, but that doesn't mean they should not act on the ideals and values that are important in society, even if it might be uncomfortable for them or their audience, Levit says.

Also, for him, the ideals of art and society are connected. "If you open your mouth and you link yourself to ideals, if you speak of music as the universal language, music as something that would bring people together, and so on and so on...  I only believe you if you not only live these values within a concert hall, from a concert stage, but you actually live these ideals," he says.

"The music and artist narrative of being the kind of good person, per se, because you make music, but outside of the concert hall you don't give a damn about it (society) and you don't care, this I find a hypocrisy beyond belief. And this is what I argue against."

He continues, "If you decide to not speak out, fine. This is your decision, we are a free society, this is a democracy. I believe in the right to even be ignorant. That is a right -- I find it wrong, even dangerous, but you have a right to do so. But to not relate to (societal) values and ideals, and then say 'oh, I am an artist, I have so much to do with Mozart and Beethoven I don't have time to do anything else -- this is hypocrisy, this is what I absolutely hate, and this is what I was talking about."

As someone born of a Jewish family from Russia, now living in Berlin, Levit is primarily concerned about the rise of European right-wing nationalism.

"That's our daily life here, now. We are not burning out every day, it's not that we have 54 breaking news (stories) every hour, that's not the case. But we are in a very dangerous situation, absolutely. And we should never underestimate the danger."

He points out a growing neofascism movement in Germany, Poland's recent "Holocaust law" that bans the blaming of Poles for any crimes committed during the Holocaust, and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban's election earlier this month.

Hungary "elected a guy who ran a campaign of anti-semitism," Levit says. "And then the same conservative politicians here in Germany did not hesitate to say 'we congratulate Mr. Viktor Oban for his election.' And I'm like, seriously guys? This is deeply disturbing. That's why I say we are not safe."

He adds. "Let me again put it mildly, it kind of freaks me out, is that I will never understand how people can be ignorant."

Ultimately, culture, including music, "needs the freedom to exist, and if there is no freedom to exist, we have a big problem."

That there are no walls between Levit's work on stage and his thoughts on the rest of the world shows in his performance of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" at the 2017 BBC Proms (the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts).

"I believe it was the first prom after Brexit," he says. So, as a response to the U.K.'s withdrawal from the European Union he selected the official anthem of the E.U., while also wearing an E.U. flag on his lapel.

"I did that in order to express my feelings about what I believe in," he says. "I"m a very critical European citizen. I am critical of the European Union, but I am a European. And so I take every right I have to express it and protect it against every single one of those who treat all of our ideals as if it was garbage."

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992. For more: http://www.markswedel.com/

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