A class act

Pianist Caren Levine impresses a sold-out crowd at her ‘Farewell Chico’ performance

THE DIVA AND DR. LEVINE Soprano (and actress) Tamara Allspaugh (left) belts out a number accompanied by Caren Levine on piano.

THE DIVA AND DR. LEVINE Soprano (and actress) Tamara Allspaugh (left) belts out a number accompanied by Caren Levine on piano.

Photo by Tom Angel

Things are not always what they appear. Or so I felt, watching and listening to departing Chico State accompanist Dr. Caren Levine’s grand “Farewell Chico” concert, which took place Monday evening at the Sierra Nevada Big Room. Was it the sentimental good-bye (possibly more appropriate to someone over 50) it purported to be? Or was it a departing shot—"before returning to Juilliard"—at Music Department antagonists who, perhaps foolishly, saw to it that this astoundingly accomplished but sometimes polarizing teacher and musician was let go?

Such questions floated about the handsomely appointed, acoustically uneven (was that overhead roar air conditioning or beer swirling through vats?), lounge-like room filled to 400-person capacity. (I say hurrah for the local brewery and the new-formed Alliance of Music and Theatre Arts that produced the show.)

Levine is an incredible pianist who plays with great cleanness, impressive speed and articulation, an exceptional talent for stretching and condensing time (perhaps the result of her accompanying experience), and an intensely thoughtful involvement with her music. Although physically tiny, she can produce a lot of sound. As a friend remarked, she seems to spend half her playing time an inch or two above the bench.

Levine chose a wide variety or works for her Monday performance—a set of flashy encore-like pieces, some cabaret songs (sung by Chico’s talented soprano and actress Tamara Allspaugh), Chopin’s “Grande Valse Brillante,” a set of broodingly melancholy Russian works, some lieder and spirituals (sung by soprano Margo Alexander in “Grande Dame” style) and a set of her own compositions.

The opening Schubert-Liszt “Soiree de Vienne,” a work moving back and forth between two not terribly compatible compositional styles, showed off Levine’s ability to stretch and retard time and to single out specific notes for effective, slightly off-kilter emphasis. This was followed by a gently rolling, Liebestraum-like Liszt Consolation and a flashy, scattered-all-over-the-keyboard, moving-toward-Prokofiev “Etincelles,” by Moritz Moszkowski.

Allspaugh, clad in a figure-hugging, black-sequined lounge-singer’s dress, did nicely with a pair of William Bolcom cabaret songs placed, as many of Bolcom’s songs are, somewhere between the romanticized 1890s and the present. I was particularly taken with Marc Blitzstein’s pretty 1930s ballad, “The World’s Insane, Dear, So Stay in my Arms,” and his bubbly take on E. E. Cummings’ New Jersey-accented “Jimmie’s Got a Goil.” The set concluded with the flashily accompanied, Levine-arranged “Stuff Like That There,” by Jay Livingston.

The concert’s first half concluded with a Chopin showpiece, his “Grande Valse Brillante,” a flashy work about which Levine may have thought too much—pushing the louds and the softs and the tempo changes so intently that the work’s overall grace and romantic splendor were somewhat compromised.

The concert’s second half opened with three pensive/melancholy pieces by Scriabin and Rachmaninoff, the last of which, Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G-sharp minor, with its Russian-steppe-like octaves in the right hand and its development into Kandinsky-like splashes of color, was particularly fine.

This was followed by Margo Sherelle Alexander singing a pair of Strauss and Brahms lieder in a voice perhaps slightly too full to do justice to the delicacies of such works (although the clarity of her German pronunciation has improved markedly) and a trio of spirituals richly and intelligently arranged by Ms. Levine. It was particularly striking, for example, how clearly the piano helped paint the scenes described in “He’s Got the Whole World in His Arms,” a piece that concluded with a silent “Thank you, Caren” from Ms. Alexander.

Excepting encores, of which there were three, the concert concluded with a set of the best works from Levine’s recently produced CD featuring her own compositions “Coffee Boogie” and, last, the title track to her album, “Flowers from a Secret Admirer” (please see CD review this issue).

Caren Levine is a class act, and it is sad that the local university, which is constantly trying to recreate itself as a class act, cannot hold onto her. But such things happen often, here and elsewhere. She has now "passed through" and will in all likelihood continue on, as superior teacher and fine performer, from excellence to excellence. We knew her when.