Interview with the Pianist (July 1966)
SJ: We’re here today interviewing pianist Eli Levin, who just returned from the Moscow Competition where he performed with American violinist Warren Anderson. Mr. Anderson won the coveted gold medal at that fiercely competitive event. Mr. Levin received a special medal from the judges in recognition of his extraordinary ability as a pianist and accompanist. Congratulations, Mr. Levin!
EL: Thank you so much.
SJ: Where is the medal now? We’d hoped we might see it today.
EL: Well, actually, I gave it to my wife. She earned it as much as I did.
SJ: Yes, I imagine being married to an accompanist who is as much in demand as you are can’t be easy. I’m sure you are away more than you’re home.
EL: Yes, I am. Kristina knew what my professional plans were before we married and she has been unfailingly supportive. Once in a while she manages to arrange her schedule so she can take a short tour with us – Warren and me – and other times she has surprised me by showing up at a concert. She’s a busy lady in her own right as Personal Assistant to Maestro Aaron Rubin at the City Opera Company.
SJ: When and where did you and Mrs. Levin meet?
EL: We were both fifteen. I was visiting my sister Rachel, who lives in the town Krissy grew up in, and performed a recital there. I returned during the summer and I spent quite a bit of time at the Porters’ … Krissy’s parents’ … home. We didn’t see each other after that, but a few years later, when we were both in college, we were able to reconnect.
SJ: Yes, I understand you married when you were both students at the Conservatory in Cincinnati.
EL: Well, actually, I transferred to the school right after we were married, but we graduated together. I did my graduate study at the Juilliard School, so we moved to New York at that time.
SJ: And began performing immediately after your graduation, I believe, and you’ve been playing almost non-stop ever since. Except for a detour for open heart surgery not long ago.
EL: Yes, I was out of commission for a few months. But the surgery was successful and I’m busier than ever these days.
SJ: May we talk about your heart condition?
EL: Well … I never like to make a big deal of it. I was born with a congenital heart defect called Tetralogy of Fallot. Children with the condition are often called “blue babies” because the defects in the heart – there are four – impede the flow of oxygen to the blood. I had a surgical procedure when I was nine which relieved the worst of the symptoms, but no actual repairs to the heart were done at that time.
SJ: The Blalock-Taussig shunt, pioneering surgery done at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore in 1944, over twenty years ago. I believe until that procedure was performed there was little hope for children born with the condition, and they often did not survive childhood or live past their teens.
EL: Well, as you see, I’m definitely past my teens. (laughter) It was after I had the procedure done that I started playing piano. I think my family was shocked when it became apparent I was good at it. Oh, and please don’t use the “P” word, I really dislike it.
SJ: Yes, I was warned. But you were indeed a remarkably gifted young pianist, performing the difficult and demanding Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto at the age of sixteen with the New York Philharmonic, receiving rave reviews. It seemed you were headed for a career as a virtuoso. Yet you stated your wife knew that wasn’t what you wanted, even before you were married. What set your feet on the path you are following?
EL: I’m sure it was a combination of influences and events. The first time I performed with another musician – I was a freshman in college – I enjoyed it far more than performing as a soloist. But it may have been even earlier; when I spent time with Krissy the summer we were teenagers. We often played piano duets. Part of that was because it gave me an excuse to sit close to her. Piano benches aren’t very large. (laughter)
SJ: It’s been a pleasure to speak with you, Mr. Levin. Before we close, would you like to add a few words of encouragement to budding accompanists who might be listening?
EL: Yes, I would. Play as often as you can with as many different singers and instrumentalists as you can, so you can begin to learn the vast literature you’ll be challenged with during your career. Listen to recordings. Attend live performances. Practice sight-reading, you never know when you might have to sight-read an entire recital. Don't ever be discouraged by the attitude you will sometimes encounter. What you do requires special skills. You’re unique. You are special. The music world could not do without outstanding pianists who choose to perform with other musicians. Wear the word “accompanist” with pride. And above all – practice, practice, practice!
SJ: And you might become the next Eli Levin. Thank you, Mr. Levin, and best wishes for your continued success!
Eli’s Heart is available on Amazon http://tinyurl.com/qyjfq7r
cover by Tristan Flanagan