Evanston Symphony Orchestra Keynotes, February 2016
“For me, it’s a dream to play this piece in the town where I live,” says harmonica virtuoso Howard Levy.
The dream comes true Feb. 14 as the Evanston Symphony Orchestra performs Mr. Levy’s amazing “Concerto for Diatonic Harmonica and Orchestra” with the composer as soloist.
The three-movement, 15-minute piece was composed in 2000 on a commission from the Illinois Philharmonic. “It took me six months to write,” he says. “I worked on it on buses, trains and in hotel rooms while I was touring.”
Each movement is written in a different church mode – Mixolydian, Dorian and Ionian – to give it a unique sound, and features improvisatory cadenzas for the soloist. Mr. Levy has recorded the piece with the Czech National Symphony and performed it more than three dozen times in Europe, Asia and North America, including at Orchestra Hall with the Chicago Sinfonietta and in specially adapted versions with the Hohner Accordion Orchestra in Germany and the Hong Kong Harmonica Orchestra.
Diatonic harmonica is the traditional single-key “mouth organ” or “blues harp” long used in classical and popular music. Mr. Levy developed a technique of “overblowing and overdrawing,” bending the reeds to produce the other notes of the octave. This enables him to play every note across the entire spectrum of the instrument, like a chromatic harmonica, while retaining the soulful and hauntingly expressive quality of a blues harmonica.
The seminal moment took place in Evanston in September of 1969. After attending a rally at Northwestern University in support of the “Chicago 7” anti-Vietnam war protesters, he was inspired to express his feelings musically. “I felt like playing the ‘harp.’ I fished it out of my pocket, a Marine band in G… put it to my lips, and suddenly, I bent the 4 draw. I was shocked – that’s what it felt like. WOW! Indescribable, an oral balancing act between vacuum, pressure, and breath that transformed the harp from a mundane wood and metal object into a magical, organic vessel that vibrated, sang, and changed me in the process – forever, as it turned out. I felt like Columbus discovering a new continent.”
Mr. Levy was born in Brooklyn and studied classical piano and pipe organ at the Manhattan School of Music, but his musical tastes were highly eclectic. “I grew up listening to a lot of popular music such as Hendrix, Sinatra and the Beatles. And I played sax, mandolin, harmonica and clarinet on the streets of New York for spare change.” He saw Elvin Jones and Herbie Hancock at the Village Vanguard and such classical virtuosos as Itzhak Perlman, Janos Starker and Mstislav Rostropovich at Washington Irving High School, where he worked as a concert usher.
Both composer and concerto have strong local ties. He first came to Evanston in 1969 to study music at Northwestern. After returning to New York briefly in 1970, he moved back to Evanston and has been here ever since. His two children were born here and went to local schools. Before pursuing music full-time he did a lot of odd jobs in and around Evanston, including house painter, punch press operator, welder and plumber’s assistant. Gradually he became active in the local music scene, playing jazz, folk, rock and Latin music on piano and harmonica. He started two bands, the Balkan Rhythm Band and the jazz ensemble NBV Quartet.
From there his musical accomplishments have become even richer and more varied. He has played with such iconic artists as Steve Goodman, John Prine, Paul Simon, Kenny Loggins and Dolly Parton. He has written hundreds of compositions – “long, medium, short, in just about every style that I play in,” appeared on more than 200 CDs and played on several movie soundtracks. In 1988 he co-founded the breakthrough jazz/bluegrass ensemble Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Their reunion album “Rocket Science,” released in 2011, earned him his second Grammy award.
Mr. Levy’s association with the Evanston Symphony goes back decades, indirectly, when he first met ESO Music Director Lawrence Eckerling. They played their first (and until now only) gig together, a corporate event of jazz and R&B music, at Pick-Staiger Hall in 2003. “We’ve been talking a long time about playing this piece together,” says Mr. Levy, “but our schedules never meshed. Now finally it’s happening, and I’m thrilled!”
Adds Mr. Eckerling: “I’m absolutely delighted that it was able to work out this time, and am so looking forward to collaborating with him!”
Two great local musical institutions – the Evanston Symphony and Howard Levy – together for the first time!