Reviews – What the critics said about . . .

School of Velocity
for piano

” Magic in transmuting exercise into poetry” —Richard Dyer, Boston Globe, April 29, 1993

“(A) kinetic cocktail of huge hammer strokes, grand flourishes.” —Susan Larson, Boston Globe, March 20, 1999

“A highly impressive set of studies, packed with musical energy.” —Paul Griffiths, New York Times, March 30, 1999

Tesserae for viola and piano

“This clangorous, intense, obsessive number features spellbindingly colorful writing…It’s a set of variations and a riveting one at that, cast in a three-part configuration both lucidly delineated and highly effective.” – David Cleary, The New Music Connoisseur, Fall/Winter 2003.

Clarion/Shadowing for clarinet, violin, and piano

“A canny husbanding of sonorous energy with powerful motoric impulses spelled by hypnotic calms, the entirety gratefully imagined for the instruments.” —Richard Buell, Boston Globe, November, 1992

“Easily the two most intellectually and emotionally satisfying pieces on the program.” —John Huxhold, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May, 1996

Roulade for flute, harp, and string trio

“Arthur Levering’s Roulade, with its keenly imagined, texture-as-phrase sonorities, and confident, not-to-be-meddled-with feeling for form, came as a godsend.”
—Richard Buell, Boston Globe, April 5, 1995

Cortege for brass quintet

“Smart, nifty, pointillist fun, and built like a steel trap besides.” —Richard Buell, Boston Globe, May 31, 1994

Still Raining, Still Dreaming for 6 players: flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, piano, percussion, violin, and cello

“Living young Americans . . . were represented by Arthur Levering’s elegantly crafted Still Raining, Still Dreaming, the first performance of which gave you its chimey, childlike, motoric qualities, the second its purposeful, long-lined, songlike tone of voice.” —Richard Buell, Boston Globe, November 20, 1996

Twenty Ways Upon the Bells for 7 players: flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, piano/celesta, percussion, violin, viola, and cello

“A drop-dead gorgeous set of variations on a tune that recalls a peal of change-rung bells.” —Susan Larson, Boston Globe, November 1, 1994

Furies for 11 players: flute/piccolo, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, piano, percussion, 2 violins, viola, cello, and contrabass

“…a refreshing island of pointilistic sparkle…” —Allan Kozinn, New York Times, February 1, 2008

Catena for piano and chamber orchestra: 1120, 2110, celesta, piano, 2 percussion, and strings

“Striking aural effects . . . fascinating combinations of instrumental color.” —Ellen Pfeifer, Boston Globe, September 18, 2000

“Intensely driven . . . showing sonic kinship to the swirling, colorful oeuvre of Takemitsu and Boulez.” —David Cleary, 21st Century Music, December, 2000


“Arthur Levering’s CRI disc is a magnificent accomplishment: music of enormous clarity, harmonic focus, and rhythmic zest.”
—Robert Carl, Fanfare (year’s best list), November/December, 1999

“In a city replete with world-class composers, Levering ranks among the very best that Boston—or any other municipality, for that matter—has to offer. This CD is an excellent sampling of his work, an essential and highly recommended purchase.”
—David Cleary, The New Music Connoiseur, June – November 1999

“This review gives me particular pleasure to write, as I have been aware of Arthur Levering’s music for several years now, and welcome the opportunity to bring it to others’ attention. Levering (b. 1953) is a composer based in the Boston area, and this is his debut CD, which features a series of brief but concentrated works which show off his strengths handsomely. Levering’s music is not easy to classify (happily for him), but that does not mean one cannot describe it. Amongst its qualities are:

Clarity. The composer has a gift for writing music which is lean, to the point, and brilliantly scored. One hears every note in any texture, no matter how dense. While Levering is not afraid of repetition, neither does he use it in classic minimalist fashion. Rather, his ostinati become a sort of template on which he can work continuous variants which keep the music engaging. Though the music does not sound like Stravinsky on its surface, it shares a good deal with the master in its general approach to musical sound and sense.

Rhythmic interest. Levering is one of the few younger composers I know who is able to write truly convincing fast music: not just a quick tempo, but music which projects an authentic propulsion derived from real harmonic rhythm, as well as surface densities. The music dances.

Imaginative orchestration. This music often sounds as though it is being played by more instruments than are actually involved. This comes from both the composer’s taste for brilliantly focussed timbres, and from his skill in breaking up individual instruments into sub-groups of sounds which can recombine in various ways. A perfect example is the opening of Clarion/Shadowing, where—within a trio of clarinet, violin, and piano—the piano’s two hands play very different materials (with different dynamics and articulations), combining with the piercing interjections of the clarinet and the more subtle line of the pizzicato violin to create the illusion of a quartet.

Wit. The music has a genuine sense of play. Only Uncle Inferno, a hilarious three-movement work for piano six-hands (already a funny medium by itself), makes deliberate fun of itself through its variations on what the composer calls an “insipid tune.” But all the pieces have a lightness of touch and a wry, sly tone.

Some readers may have noticed that I sometimes remark on the fact that many composers’ albums seem to be collections of smaller works, most in single movements. I’ve also often noted that this sort of presentation is good for a “sampler,” but still leaves room for deciding later whether or not the composer can (or even wants) to deal with larger forms and musical architectures. Levering’s music is also similarly concentrated, but in this particular case, I am left less with the sense of what is not present than is usually the case. The reason is: all these pieces are so tightly constructed and concentrated in their materials that they leave an impression of greater breadth than mere timings would suggest. Nothing sounds “occasional” here.

All of these performances are excellent. Donald Berman, whose superb Ives recital I review elsewhere in this issue, handles the demanding etudes of School of Velocity brilliantly, as well as the piano part in every other work on the program except Roulade. Scott Wheeler (himself an accomplished composer and a former Fanfare reviewer) maintains a tight, precise grip on every note of the works he conducts, and his Dinosaur Annex Ensemble shows why it is one of the most prominent and enduring new music groups around. Wheeler has long been an advocate of Levering’s, and this generosity has borne fruit in performances that are carefully considered and fluently rendered. This is the best debut album by an American composer I’ve heard this year.”
—Robert Carl, Fanfare, July/August, 1999

In his astute and entertaining program notes for this CD, Robert Carl, attempting to describe the music of Arthur Levering, reluctantly settles on the admittedly inelegant term, “post-neoclassical.” It’s not bad for conjuring up an aspect of Levering’s music — it’s something like neoclassicism gone completely wild, while being disciplined at its core. Carl also offers a less technical assessment of the music — “simultaneously natural and surprising,” and that is indeed an apt characterization. The music may sometimes seem like it’s on the verge of careening into chaos, but it’s clear the composer is in complete control of what’s going on. Levering describes one of these pieces, Still Raining, Still Dreaming, as an homage to Takemitsu, and in fact many of the works here do resemble Takemitsu, but a hyperkinetic Takemitsu, a heavily caffeinated Takemitsu, a Takemitsu on steroids, a Takemitsu with Attention Deficit Disorder. Not that that’s a bad thing — the exquisite precision and the harmonic language and gestures characteristic of the Japanese composer’s work are audible, but have an entirely different effect when presented with Levering’s level of frenetic energy. His music does also have moments of blissful repose, but these moments are never allowed to become static; they typically begin to accelerate into hyper-drive, or are interrupted by brash explosions of playful energy. That playfulness is one of the strengths of Levering’s work; this is music that is composed with consummate skill and inventiveness, but which doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s never trivial, but it’s fun music, and it’s fun to listen to. (One of the pieces, Sppooo, takes its title from a caption in Roz Chast’s transcendently goofy cartoon, Parallel Universes.) Any listener jaded by the grayness that can characterize late twentieth century academic music, but who finds little solace in the pop-tinged sounds of some post-modernist composers should be heartened to discover the intellectual integrity and color and liveliness of Levering’s pieces. The performances by the Boston-based Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble, conducted by Scott Wheeler, along with various soloists, are simultaneously pristine and boisterous.
–Stephen Eddins —
The music of Boston composer Arthur Levering features a wonderful blend of rhythmic vitality, instrumental color and expressive urgency – and this new compilation disc offers as good an introduction as any to Levering’s work. The repertoire here ranges from ambitious orchestral tone poems to intimate chamber works, all of them marked by an inviting combination of delicacy and robustness. “Furies,” the opening selection for chamber orchestra, plunges into a world of dark harmonies sustained by the buoyancy of the rhythmic patterning, and is matched by the austere grace of “Parallel Universe” for string orchestra. In between come “Il Mare Dentro,” an orchestral evocation of the sea whose inventiveness leaves a listener eager for more, and the rigorously structured piano duet, “Partiite sopra Ciaccona.” These are potent, impressive pieces, but for sheer exquisite charm, it’s hard to top Levering’s “Drinking Songs,” with insinuating vocal melodies set to crystalline accompaniments for two harps and two pianos.
–Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 27, 2014, Updated: March 2, 2014

Arthur Levering has been active as a composer for more than three decades, during which time he has created works full of enchanting and vibrant soundscapes. This recording, performed to the dramatic hilt by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and other superb artists, focuses on pieces from the past decade, confirming his continued exploration of colourful territory. All the works have titles suggesting a narrative but what’s most intriguing is the composer’s ability to maintain a constant flow of organically shaped material. Furies (2006), for example, rumbles and glistens, with Stravinsky-like wind textures and motoric rhythms, tolling of bells and ominous flourishes. The aura in Il mare dentro (2008) alternates between menacing and dreamy as it evokes the motion of the sea, even quoting Debussy’s La mer, as if that music were naturally wedded. The tonal roots often anchoring Levering’s art are most apparent in the four Drinking Songs (2005), charming and heartfelt evocations of verses in English, Latin, French and Middle English. The collection is scored for mezzo with two harps and two pianos, giving the songs distinctive, sleek ambiences, with hints of gamelan. Levering uses an old form with imaginative depth in Partite sopra ciaccona , in which two pianos dart about their respective keyboards (based on material from Furies) and engage in antagonistic volleys and bell-tolling at the extremes. The disc derives its name from Parallel Universe (2004), a gripping theme and variations for string orchestra marked by anxious swirls and urgent interweaving of thematic lines.
–Donald Rosenberg, GRAMOPHONE, October, 2014

I’ve written before about the American composer Arthur Levering (b. 1953) (disclosure: Over the years he’s become a friend, though the relationship developed after my initial evaluations of his music. And my policy in such a case would be never to review a work if I felt I had to pull my punches for personal reasons.) This new release shows an ever-greater diversity in the composer’s technical toolkit and expressive aims, even though he remains true to his continuing vision.

Furies (2006) for 11 Players feels like the work most rooted in Levering’s familiar practice. By this I mean a tensile rhythmic energy that generates unflagging momentum, a tight control over motives, a clear and transparent orchestration, and an overall scrupulousness that suggests every note and gesture has been carefully weighed for impact and function within the piece’s structure.

Il Mare Dentro (2008) is the first of a series of orchestral movements the composer plans in response to images of water, and to earlier pieces that deal with the subject. In this work’s case it’s Debussy’s La Mer, which even makes a quotation appearance near the end. While the work has Levering’s trademark ostinatos and nervous energy, it also has sections that are much more open and spacious in their sound and evolution. And when the two approaches combine, it’s as though a chemical reaction releases a new sort of energy.

The 2005 Drinking Songs for mezzo-soprano, 2 harps and 2 pianos are even more different from the composer’s previous norm. In this case the repetition is more modal than chromatic, and I hear distinct echoes of gamelan. (Though unlike gamelan, there are still modulations from one mode to another here.) Setting four texts—two by Yeats and Valéry, two anonymous Medieval—the music has a light, music-box quality in the first two songs. The third and fourth become increasingly expressive and open, perhaps mirroring an increasingly inebriated state, though this is still a gentle inebriation.

Partite sopra Ciaccona (2011) moves in yet a different stylistic direction. This piece for two pianos is far fiercer than anything I’ve heard before of the composer. It is more clangorous and dissonant than most of his other works, though I find it invigorating and athletic rather than abrasive. As the title suggests, it’s a set of variations above a chaconne (a cycling harmonic progression). Its contrasts of register, pounding clusters, and vaguely sinister repeating notes make it one of the most “Modernist” of Levering’s pieces.

Parallel Universe (2004) is for string orchestra, and its sound and gestural palette remind me a little of Charles Wuorinen’s Grand Bamboula (not my favorite composer, but a piece I love). Levering once again finds compelling ways to superimpose broad lines over agitated “micro-ostinatos,” to grand effect. The music can range from playful and athletic to spacious to anxious.

I find Levering to be a composer who is closer to the Stravinskian legacy than many who are self-proclaimed Neoclassicists. Perhaps that’s because if this is the case, it’s the late-period Stravinsky that motivates him, a music that’s intense, compact, and demanding on its listeners, but which gives great reward. The same can be said for Levering’s. Performances are all superb, projecting just the right tautness and exactitude of execution to bring out the beauties of the music.
–Robert Carl, Fanfare