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Chamber music society head is tuned to the future

Posted 7:51am on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013

Gary Levinson, at the still-young age of 47, already has made a lifetime of musical connections in classical communities around the world — connections he will rely on to help shape the direction of the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth.

Levinson, whom the small but mighty music organization tapped as its new artistic director this spring, has an impressive performing arts pedigree and his own playing abilities to back it up.

His father, the renowned double bassist Eugene Levinson, recently retired from the New York Philharmonic after 25 years and continues to teach at the prestigious Juilliard School. Gary Levinson, a violinist, serves as senior principal associate concertmaster with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, a post he has held since 2002. He is also a sought-after chamber musician and prolific recording artist.

“Both of my parents are first-class performing musicians. And I started playing at 5,” he says. “I started playing for the New York Philharmonic when I was 21.”

The Chamber Music Society will open its 26th season Oct. 19 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth under Levinson’s guidance — the first leadership change in the organization’s history.

“When they asked me to do it, of course I was thrilled to say yes,” he says. “And what I will promise is that the audience is going to get concerts of uncompromising quality.”

And, says John Forestner, president of the Chamber Music Society, there will be a bit of a new direction — more strings and fewer pianos.

Instead of a concert season stacked from fall to spring with pianists and Cliburn competition alumni (1997 gold medalist Jon Nakamatsu has been a frequent and popular featured artist), with string quartets sprinkled into the mix, the Chamber Music Society is going to present, primarily, chamber music.

“We had been a piano-based chamber society for many years. But we were seeing a decline in audience size and season ticket sales over the last five years that was very concerning to us,” says Forestner, a retired anesthesiologist who has long been active in the local arts scene. “We saw some real problems with programming that we felt was not broad enough. . . . We decided we really needed to move in a different direction. And we figured that would take new artistic leadership.”

The Chamber Society’s leadership saw an immediate match in Levinson, Forestner says.

“Gary was recommended to us from several sources, and he was one of the first people we interviewed for the job,” he says. “Everything we were looking for he had in spades. He has terrific contacts, terrific people skills and a lot of energy.”

While Levinson promises “there is not going to be the ‘same old’ anything” under his leadership, he is quick to add that he has no intention of altering the organization’s aims.

“My approach was not to change what came before me,” Levinson says. “I just wanted to have a balance to the season.”

The 2013-14 concert lineup is impressive and already shows the touch of Levinson’s guiding hand. Among the highlights are the Fort Worth debuts of the Grammy Award-winning Diaz Trio and of the Berlin-based Atrium Quartet. In January, a program called “Levinson and Friends” will bring Eugene Levinson in from New York to play with a distinguished group that includes cellist Carter Enyeart, former co-artistic director of the Chamber Society.

The younger Levinson will perform in several of this season’s concerts on the Stradivarius violin that comes with his job at the Dallas Symphony.

A real highlight, he promises, will be the reunion of the Vermeer String Quartet on April 19 — the day before Easter — to perform its signature work, Haydn’s nine-movement The Seven Last Words of Christ.

“This is a group that doesn’t play together anymore,” he says. “But they are getting back together just for us.”

The concert will take place in the Kimbell Art Museum’s new Renzo Piano Pavilion auditorium. Meditations given by local community leaders will intersperse with the movements of the music.

For a city of Fort Worth’s size to not only have, but have nurtured and supported, a chamber music society for more than 25 years is somewhat unusual, especially in recent years, when large cities rich in culture — such as Philadelphia and Nashville — have seen their big symphony orchestras struggle to stay afloat.

Robert Davidovici is credited with the idea to start the Chamber Music Society in the late 1980s, when he was the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra concertmaster. He worked with beloved businessman and local arts supporter Leon Brachman to found the organization and remained its artistic leader for its first 25 years. (Davidovici did not respond to a request for an interview.)

The Chamber Music Society has chosen as its theme for the year “A Season of Reflection,” a way to connect “the music in a timeline — our past, present and the future,” it says.

“If you don’t have sort of a flashlight that shows people where you are going, they can still enjoy it. But it is not nearly the same level of commitment from us to them and them to us,” Levinson says.

The tangible manifestation of that theme is seen in some of the more introspective works on this year’s programs, such as Barber’s Adagio for Strings — the type of works that invite listeners to ponder such issues as immortality and the nature of the soul.

“The theme is about what brings us all together and why we are here,” he says.

Another area the new artistic director hopes to address is the graying of the concert audience.

“I think one of the things we haven’t done a good job with, as an industry, is to invite the young people and college-age people who are not necessarily musicians to come enjoy classical music and chamber music in particular,” he says. “We have had several initiatives on the education side to change that. And I feel that we are going to have a very diverse audience, because there will be no static performances.”

Getting those younger listeners to the concert hall is an uphill climb for the organization, especially because of its concert times. To access the venues and musicians it needs, the group is pretty much locked into Saturday afternoon performances.

“I know that 2 p.m. on Saturday afternoon is not a traditional time to listen to music,” Levinson says. “But I think that people [who attend the concerts] are going to look back on the season and say, ‘That was a great investment of my Saturday afternoons.’”

Levinson says he hopes to further audience involvement by offering pre-performance lectures by the society’s program annotator Laurie Shulman, who will sometimes be joined by Levinson or other performers, to set the audience up for what it is about to hear.

“We are going to be innovative every time,” Levinson says. “And the audience is going to be able to see the process. Because we are going to be bringing in great programs and explaining those programs to the public.”

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