The famed conductor, Yoel Levi, made a triumphant return to the Atlanta Symphony earlier this month when he conducted the orchestra’s 75th anniversary concert with violin soloist Pinchas Zukerman.
The concert occurred before the ASO announced March 13 it was canceling or postponing all orchestra performances and activities through April 12 because of the coronovirus. Violin virtuoso Itzhak Perlman was supposed to appear with Levi, but canceled as a result of travel precautions resulting from the health crisis, and Zukerman stepped in so the concert could proceed March 11.
For 12 years, Levi was the driving force that shaped the ASO into a world-class orchestra and Emmy Award winner. Since his final concert as a guest conductor with the orchestra in 2005 he’s been in the top ranks of the world’s symphony conductors, winning acclaim with orchestras in Europe and Asia and as principal guest conductor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
Despite his world travels, Levi continues to make his home Atlanta. We asked him about his recent return to the ASO.
AJT: What was it like to step onto the stage of Atlanta’s Symphony Hall for the first time in 15 years?
Levi: When I walked on stage the adrenaline kicked in and I was very, very excited. And that’s what I love about this profession. I am so excited when I go on stage. It’s a very special feeling. It’s a very emotional moment. It took a couple of seconds to calm down.
AJT: Your anniversary concert program with the ASO was enthusiastically received. There was an energetic and very vocal standing ovation and several curtain calls. How did you decide what the anniversary concert would be?
Levi: My idea was to reconstruct my first program with the Atlanta Symphony as a musical director in 1988. So the overture was the same. It was Verdi’s “La Forza Del Destino,” the Force of Destiny.
And then we had Pinchas Zukerman with a tremendous performance of Bruch’s “Violin Concerto No. 1.” I wouldn’t call it a Jewish piece, but it has a lot of Jewish soul. By the way, Zukerman and I, when we were young, both studied violin with the same teacher in Israel.
And then, the Mahler First Symphony. I decided to bring it back because it’s very special to me. Of all his symphonies, I would say it is his most Jewish one because of the themes, the melodies he’s using, the way he’s portraying like a Jewish Chasidic wedding and things like that. Mahler came from a very Jewish family, but that was not the reason I chose it for the program. The reason was purely because I loved Mahler, number one, and number two, that was the original program when I first came to the Atlanta Symphony.
AJT: And would you say you have a lot of Jewish soul, too?
Levi: There is no way to describe what is your soul. You cannot. There is no question that I have something special within me that makes me look at music in a certain way.
Is it because of my upbringing in Israel? Possibly.
But I have no explanation for the things that I can do or am capable of doing.
Where is it coming from? I have no idea. I don’t know the history of my family because most of them were killed in the Holocaust. And today there is no one in my family to talk about it. No one knows.
But I hope I have a Jewish soul. I hope so. I hope the good part of the Jewish soul.
AJT: One of the problems that all symphony orchestras have today is cultivating a new audience. How do we get more young people interested in great music? What do you think it will take for us to do this in Atlanta?
Levi: Well, obviously, we need a new approach. No question. I think one of the things that is missing in Atlanta is to have a truly great musical school. Like you have in Europe or in other places in the world. And if we will create a great musical school that is connected to the Atlanta Symphony, that will be the first step.
We also need to do more of what we call outreach programs to have relationship with different schools, different universities, collaborate with them, do joint projects with them. There are a lot of things that can be done.
And we should always try to achieve a higher level because I always say that the most important thing is the product. Is our product truly first class? We can convince people only if we have the highest level. People like to be part of something at the very high level. And if we are involved more with the younger generation in different ways, we will be the inspiration, the cultural inspiration for the whole South. And that’s what we need to do.
AJT: You know, after you left the ASO, you could have lived anywhere in the world. Why did you choose to remain in Atlanta?
Levi: Because I love the city. I feel very comfortable here. My children are here, two of them. One of them was born in Atlanta. I didn’t feel any reason to move to another place. I have many friends here and I feel extremely comfortable and that’s why I never left Atlanta. It’s my hometown.