So long sonata

Acclaimed pianist Caren Levine hesitantly departs Chico for Juilliard, leaving many wondering why

Caren Levine

Caren Levine

Say it isn’t so. When an accomplished and valued artist leaves a community, it’s safe to say that everyone suffers to a certain degree. Former Chico State University teacher and director of the Piano Accompaniment Program for the past three years, Dr. Caren Levine, 30, has proven herself to be a remarkable young pianist and teacher, which only a glance at her resume shows.

Legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman, composer-pianist Peter Schickele, jazz legend Maynard Ferguson and soprano Barbara Bonney are just a few of the great artists with whom she has performed. The 1999 Artists International Competition in NYC, the Meistersinger Vocal Competition in Austria, the Munz-Chopin Piano Competition in Maryland are but a few of the competitions she has won.

And yet she is leaving, after her application was rejected following a nationwide search for someone to fill her position on a fully tenured basis. A university committee consisting of four tenured faculty members conducted the search and decided to hire someone else.

“It’s a rare position [to be open],” explained Music Department Chairman Dr. James Bankhead. “We received the best candidates I’ve seen here in seven years.”

“I didn’t want to leave,” Levine says over the phone. “I loved it here … but they didn’t want a performer on the faculty.” Levine performed 40 concerts last year and says the work did not interfere with her teaching and was supported by the university.

So just why did the committee let such talent go? Speculation has been widespread and emotional, with the favored answer suggesting, somewhat murkily, personality conflicts between her and other, non-performing faculty. But senior faculty member and search committee Chairman David Rothe says the decision was a complex process based solely on job criteria.

“Bear in mind that the primary duty is to teach,” he says. “We do encourage our faculty to perform … but, after a serious search, we chose someone we felt would best build the accompaniment program.” The successful candidate is a former Humboldt State University faculty member who had success there, Rothe said.

Whatever the case, Levine is headed back to the Big Apple and the hallowed halls of the Juilliard School, where she once received her doctorate and will return to teach after a farewell concert (likely to sell out) on June 4 at the Sierra Nevada Big Room performance facility.

A native New Yorker of Russian heritage, Levine was raised in a musical family (her uncle was on Broadway) who allowed her to pursue the arts without pressure at home. She knew piano was her passion since the tender age of 7, when she first performed before a live audience and was instantly “hooked.”

Since then, she has risen rapidly as a collaborative artist in the piano world. After receiving her bachelor of music degree from the Peabody Conservatory of Music and her master’s and doctorate in music arts from Juilliard, she went on to tour extensively around the globe and played with such greats as Perlman, Bonney and one of her favorites, the passionate violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonneberg.

“People always ask me why the hell I have so many holes in my ears,” she says. “It’s because of her. She’s a big role model for me … and she curses a lot too which I do too.” She laughs heartily.

Of her own playing she says, “The thing I strive for is clarity and respect for what the composer wrote.” Rachmaninoff, the emotionally expressive late Romantic Russian composer, is one of her specialties.

Her only sibling, a brother, teaches math at UC Davis and was another of the primary reasons she chose to take the job at Chico State as an assistant professor in 1998.

"[And] I wanted to be around nicer people,” she explains. “The students here have been wonderful. … It’s a different kind of training, a broader education unlike the rigorous musical focus at a conservatory.”

A great thing about living in Chico, Levine says, has been a better quality of life. “I have a nice house and a car, my cats are happy—as opposed to living in a crappy, roach-infested apartment.”

To hear her describe her time here, it sounds as if Levine had her share of wonderful experiences, which may be why many in the community are emotional over her departure.

“I have the utmost respect for Dr. Bankhead. He’s been a true mentor of mine,” Levine notes. “And my students are incredible people that I’m sure I’m going to know for the rest of my life. … I’ve met some special people out here.”

One of those people is Jevon Gegg-Mitchell, a 16-year-old Chico High student, whom Levine tutored and who recently won a competition (cash prize and scholarship) at Cal State Stanislaus.

“He’s been extraordinary,” Levine says. “A lot of potential, and he and his family have been a pleasure. … I’ve learned a lot from him. I’m dedicating one of the [farewell concert] pieces to him.”

“Caren is a very intelligent, talented woman,” says Margot Gegg, Jevon’s mother. “We [she and her son] always talk about how inspiring and supportive she is. … He’s learned a lot from her.”

For her final concert, Levine will be per- forming an impressive spectrum of showstoppers, all of them culled from the encore catalogue of her former Juilliard teacher Samuel Sanders, who died two years ago. The “homage” will feature a range of around 20 different composers (including a speedy Liszt piece) and include special vocal performances from colleagues Tamara Allspaugh and Margo Alexander. Levine says she “could never leave town without performing with them.”

Thanks to a hands-on approach where she often personified teaching by performance for her students, a style that worked well for her when studying under Sanders, Levine has been passed up by a committee searching to create an atmosphere wherein students do “most of the work on their own.”

“I’ve seen all my students do great because they were able to also watch me,” Levine says adamantly. “I didn’t feel like I was just telling them how to play and not doing it.”

Concerning her own future, she will likely perform 65-70 concerts next year in New York (perhaps again at Carnegie Hall), while taking over courses once taught by her cherished mentor. Undoubtedly, she is leaving many students here better equipped for the reality of their chosen profession.

“I tell my students 99 percent of the experiences you have out there are really crappy, and then one experience will be incredible and will cancel out all the bad. That’s what makes it worthwhile, that one special moment."