Conductor Yoel Levi
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Yoel Levi is one of the world’s leading conductors,
known for his vast repertoire, masterly interpretations and electrifying
performances. He is Chief Conductor of the KBS Symphony Orchestra
in Seoul, a position he has held since 2014. The fourth Seoul Arts
Center Awards bestowed Mr. Levi and the KBS Symphony Grand Prize in 2017.
Having conducted some of the most prestigious orchestras throughout
the world and appearing with esteemed soloists, Levi has led orchestras
in North America that include the Cleveland and Philadelphia Orchestras,
the Boston, Chicago and San Francisco Symphonies, and the New York Philharmonic,
to name a very few. In Europe he has led orchestras in cities that
include London, Paris, Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Rome, Frankfurt and Munich
and in the Far East, in addition to South Korea, he has conducted in Japan
Also, Mr. Levi has conducted some of the world’s leading opera companies,
including the Lyric Opera of Chicago, in addition to leading productions
in Florence, Genoa, Prague, Brussels, and throughout France.
Levi’s extensive discography--on several labels featuring many composers--
numbers more than forty. This includes more than thirty with the
Atlanta Symphony on the Telarc label.
He was Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony from 1988 to 2000.
Other posts have included Principal Conductor of the Brussels Philharmonic
from 2001-2007 and Principal Conductor of the Orchestre National d’Ile
de France from 2005 to 2012. He was the first Israeli to serve as
Principal Guest Conductor of the Israel Philharmonic.
Levi won first prize at the International Conductors Competition in
Besançon in 1978 before spending six years as the assistant of
Lorin Maazel and
resident conductor at the Cleveland Orchestra. He then assumed the
post of Music Director at Atlanta.
Other highlights of his career include a recent successful European
tour with the KBS Symphony. Similarly, during his tenure at the helm
of France’s Orchestre National d'Ile he conducted that orchestra in regular
concerts in Paris, and on tours to London, Spain and Eastern Europe.
With the Israel Philharmonic, he conducted tours of the United States
including their most recent tour in 2019. Also, he has conducted
the IPO on tour to Mexico and led them in a special concert celebrating
the 60th Anniversary of State of Israel. Other recent tours
include an extensive tour of New Zealand with the New Zealand Symphony
Orchestra, and highly acclaimed concerts in Spain with the Orchestre de
Paris. Frequently Levi is invited to conduct at special events such
as the Nobel Prize Ceremony with the Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 1997, Levi was awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts Degree by
Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. In June, 2001 he was awarded “Chevalier
de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” by the French Government.
Born in Romania August 15, 1950, Levi was raised in Israel where he
studied at the Tel Aviv Academy of Music. Receiving a Master of Arts
degree with distinction, he also studied under Mendi Rodan at The Jerusalem
Academy of Music. Subsequently Levi studied with Franco Ferrara
in Siena and Rome, and with Kirill Kondrashin in the Netherlands, and at
London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
== Throughout this webpage, names which are
links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website. BD
During the first couple of months of the year 2000, Yoel Levi [pronounced
YOH-el LEH-vee] was in Chicago leading a production of Carmen
at Lyric Opera, featuring Denyce Graves, Richard Leech, Mark S. Doss, and staged
by John Copley with
lighting by Duane Schuler.
We met in the company’s office suite before a
performance, and had a delightful half-hour together . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: You are in the middle of the
run of Carmen. Tonight will be the
eighth of thirteen performances. Is it your responsibility to keep
each performance fresh and bubbly?
Yoel Levi: It is the responsibility of all of us,
because, as you know, in opera there is tremendous teamwork, and especially
in Carmen when you have so many different elements that you have
to put together. Saying that, nevertheless, every time you need
some adjustment from a certain singer, and it’s your duty to talk to them,
to remind, to refresh, and make sure that we do our best all the time.
BD: I assume thought that in a professional
company like this, you don’t have a touchup rehearsal, or a ‘polish’
rehearsal? [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right,
see my interviews with Marvin
David Levy (pronounced LEE-vee), and Jorge Mester.]
Levi: You don’t have touch-up. However,
sometimes we can do small things with some singers in my dressing room.
There’s a piano, and we do that from time to time. Certain things
that need a touch-up, we do that, and of course when the performance
comes, it’s my job to bring the orchestra alive, and try to influence the
singers, and make things happen.
BD: If you have a little tiny touch-up in your
dressing room beforehand, is it something that perhaps maybe sagged
a little bit last time, or is it a new brilliance that you’ve just come
Levi: It depends. Every time, when you
have a long stretch of performances, after a while certain things start
to go in a certain direction, and sometimes a different direction.
So, before it goes too far in that direction, you immediately make a point
to tell the certain individual they’re doing so and so, and we try to work
it out. Or, if there is a very challenging movement that you feel
like no matter how many times you have done it, it’s still going to be a
challenge to them to do it well, a fresh upward touch-up really can help
the ensemble. So, that’s what we do.
BD: When you’re conducting each performance,
do you occasionally take a little risk to wake them up?
Levi: Yes, and they take a lot of risks to
wake me up! [Both laugh] Not purposely, but that’s the nature
of the beast.
BD: You’re basically a symphonic conductor.
This is not your first opera, but it’s relatively early in your operatic
career. Aside from the obvious, what are the major differences between
conducting just an orchestra, and the orchestra with the singers in front
Levi: I really don’t think there are really
too many differences. If you have conducted a lot of orchestral
symphonic repertoire, there are also choral pieces when you work with
a lot of different singers. The only different element is that it’s
a theater, and certain things do happen. In opera, some unpredictable
things will happen, and you need to expect the unexpected. You have
to be on your toes all the time. But music is music, and I always
approach any music as such. It doesn’t matter if it’s opera, or
choral works, or concertos, you really have to know the piece backwards
and forwards, and you need to know what to do and how to do it to make
it alive. Maybe I have not conducted many operas, but I always was
very close to the opera world. Actually, my first break was in
the opera field over twenty-four years ago. That was the reason
I became a conductor. Then I shifted away when I came to Cleveland,
and went more into the symphonic repertoire. But I never lost touch
with opera, and I always worked with some really tremendous, great singers,
with different arias. I did concert versions of operas, and it was
always in my heart.
BD: Is it fun working with the human voice?
Levi: Oh, absolutely! The human voice
is the most natural thing that you can imagine, but also the most unpredictable
thing. Since we are all made from flesh and blood, we’re not machines.
Even machines go bad, and certain pieces of machinery will break.
But, especially human beings, if we have a small headache, or if
our blood pressure is high, or it is a day when our heartbeat is racing,
or it is too slow, it all will affect the performance. But that’s
what is beautiful about it, because it will never be the same, and every
time it will be different. It will be one-of-a-kind, to happen only
that night, and you cannot duplicate that. That’s the magic thing
about music-making — that it happens.
Live music happens once, and it’s going to be different the next
day. It’s not going to be the same again.
BD: The live music is only once, and yet the
flat plastic record is identical every time.
BD: Is that a good thing, a bad thing, or just
Levi: It’s just a thing. Some of these
flat discs, which are done during live performances, are sometimes more
exciting because it’s the real thing. It’s not put in a laboratory.
We have done a lot of recordings in a studio situation, and you try
to create that atmosphere which will happen in a concert. You try
to involve yourself only with the music, the pure music-making, and make
the best happen. Also, in recordings you challenge yourself.
You push yourself to the limits, and then it’s very interesting. After
you record something, you come back to it and you perform it live, and
you take some of those risks that you’ve done in recordings, and they work.
BD: When you perform something after you’ve
recorded it, are you competing with your record?
Levi: You cannot compete with the record.
You only compete with ideas, and you may compete with your last performance
— if you liked it! [Laughs] If
you didn’t like it, you can always try to come up with a much better performance.
BD: Is there ever a night that
you get it just right?
Levi: It’s always relative. There is no
such a thing that everything is right. Maybe sometimes it’s very
close to being where everything is where you would like it to be, but
it’s always close, and the closer you get to perfection,
the further you are away from it.
[Surprised] Really??? Like Alice through the looking glass?
Levi: It is, yes. There is no such a
thing as perfection, and the more you think you’re getting it right,
then under a magnifying glass you realize it’s an endless field.
The same thing about space. The more we discover about space, the
more we realize how little we know about it.
BD: Is that what makes a piece of music great
— there is so much to discover, and so much
depth to it?
Levi: Yes, that’s what is great about any kind
of music, that it’s an endless field. No matter how many times
you’ve done a piece, you will always discover, and you always should search
for certain things — new ideas, new
philosophies, new ways of making music.
BD: New ways of making music, or new ways of
making that piece of music?
Levi: Both! That piece, or new ways of
making music in general, and how you approach music. You always
look for new ideas when you do symphonic repertoire, or any opera.
There is always a different way, and what is interesting is that every
time you work with a different artist, you suddenly see a different approach.
Every individual has his own approach, which is great, because that’s
the way it should be. You should really hear and be influenced by
other people... up to a point. Then you have to agree or disagree.
Certain individual things work, and if it doesn’t work, it still
might be a great idea. That is what is beautiful about working with
BD: So it’s a completely collaborative effort?
BD: Are all of the performers collaborating
directly with the composer?
Levi: Not always. Some individuals will
try to accommodate their own voice, or instrument, and their own talent,
and based on the talent they have, they will try to execute a certain
piece. Sometimes it will be quite close to what the composer’s wishes
are, but does anyone now know that? I don’t think so. We can
always guess, and some people will swear that they know exactly how Beethoven
wanted it, or Mozart, and so forth, but these are all wonderful dreams
of certain individuals.
BD: Do you ever wish that you could sit down
and channel directly to the spirit of Mozart, and ask him what he wanted?
Levi: Oh, absolutely. We have so many
questions that I wish he could answer as to how to do certain pieces,
certain tempos that everyone does differently. There’s always a big
discussion, and no one knows, really.
BD: Would you really want to have all of those
answers given to you?
Levi: To a certain degree, and maybe to see
if he really has the answer! [Laughs] You don’t know if he
has the answer, and then he might say to do it the way you feel. It
has to be very spontaneous. He can come up with a lot of different
BD: If he would answer all your questions,
might that take the spontaneity and the research out of it?
Levi: Not really, because it all depends on
what kind of answer he’s going to give you. He can leave you with
his answer, and that will actually cause more questions that are not going
to be answered. Nevertheless, if I would have the opportunity, I would
certainly take it.
BD: When you work with living composers,
does the insight that you gain from their ideas and their methods help
you when you work with Beethoven and Mahler and Mozart?
Levi: Not necessarily, because living composers
will express sometimes very little about their own composition. It’s
interesting... Here and there they will make very few corrections,
and they will leave it many times to the judgment of the conductor.
So one individual can not necessarily reflect what another individual
composer will have in mind.
BD: Do you wish that we were at a point where
the living composers were getting more recognition than they are?
Levi: Absolutely! But we are living in
a very different era, where a lot of things are changing rapidly, and
a lot of questions are asked about the future of the music industry, as
well as the future of mankind. Where are we going?
BD: Let’s leave mankind out for a moment, but
I want to ask perhaps a dangerous question. Where is music going
today and tomorrow? [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right,
see my interviews with Gerard Schwarz, and Jacob Avshalomov,
who speaks about his father, Aaron]
Levi: One thing is for sure.. Even though
I was named after a prophet, I don’t think I can be a prophet.
[Both laugh] The music industry is going through a lot of changes,
and, in my opinion, any organization that will adapt to the changes that
are taking place in our society will survive. The opera world
is actually doing extremely well. It’s very popular, and sales
are way up. The symphonic world is really way down, and a lot of
organizations are thinking of creative ways to change things
— how to make things more interesting, more
intriguing, more inviting for the new audience that didn’t grow up with
classical music, or, let’s call it great music. Not classical, but
great music. We are in a search at the moment. It’s a transition
era, and we will have to find some news ideas, new visions, new creations
to bring back the audience. However, it all starts in the schools,
and without giving proper attention to the education of the young generation,
nothing will change. It will only get worse, and there is not a
priority of supporting education of arts — any
kinds of arts, not only music, but also painting, sculpture, theater,
ballet, opera, you name it. When the young generation goes to school,
they learn very little about this world, and that’s what is the sad part,
because we will wake up ten or twenty years from now and have a generation
that has absolutely no appreciation for this world.
BD: Have we already lost a generation?
Levi: We’ve already lost a generation, no question
about it. The reason for this crisis is because of what’s happening
in the school systems of today. It is so sad to see that in any
school. They don’t have a class devoted to the arts. Maybe some
private, very fancy schools might have them, but even in those schools they
do not always have them, and in public schools, forget it! They cannot
afford it. They don’t have the money for it, and it’s not top priority,
and so forth, and so forth.
BD: How can we get more of it in the schools
without just throwing piles of cash at the problem?
Levi: It has to be a tremendous collaborative
effort of so many different people — organizations,
education masters, teachers — all trying
to influence the school systems. The school systems are the
roots, and if we can influence the roots, then there will be a future.
There will be trees growing. Even if they are new seeds, let’s plant
them, because then we’ll have the fruits in ten or twenty years.
BD: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about
Levi: At the moment I’m pessimistic, because
I don’t see any of our politicians that care about what kind of society
we are going to reach in ten or twenty years, and there are very few that
have any appreciation for the arts. That’s the sad part. It’s
going to become a museum of some major organizations that will survive
in the big major cities. But many organizations will not survive,
or they will become very small in scale, regional, mediocre organizations.
* * *
BD: Let’s get off of the downward trend and come
back while we still have time to enjoy the music. Especially in
the symphonic repertoire, you have this vast array of pieces that are
at your disposal. How do you decide which pieces you will do, and
which you will leave for another time?
Levi: As a guest conductor, or as a Music Director?
BD: Each one is a different set of decisions?
Levi: Absolutely. As a Music Director,
you look at the entire big picture. It’s like putting a puzzle
of a thousand pieces together. With a palate of different things,
you try to create a balanced season for your audience and for your orchestra.
As a guest conductor, then it becomes a dialogue with an organization.
You suggest certain pieces, and eventually you agree on what the program
BD: Since you are a Music Director, does that
make it easier when you’re a guest conductor to understand what the other
Music Directors have to go through?
Levi: Sure, and that’s why I try to accommodate
other organizations. I have a huge repertoire, and I ask immediately
what direction you would like me to go. They will tell me to try
to avoid certain pieces or certain composers.
BD: Because they’ve been overdone?
Levi: Overdone, or it’s going to be done during
that season. This is no problem, so we’ll immediately shift to a
direction that will help them balance their own season.
BD: Have you always been happy with what you
wind up doing?
Levi: Yes, because you have to help an organization
when you guest conduct. You cannot think about your individual glory
all the time. You really have to be able to make great music with
any composer. I believe in quality, and it doesn’t matter how you
BD: Then you’re assuming that any
piece you conduct will be a great work when you conduct it?
Levi: I want to assume that, definitely.
BD: This was the point of my original question.
How do you decide which works are worthy of your effort? I assume
there are some works in which you don’t find enough to maintain your
Levi: Right, and then I will stay away from those
certain pieces. I’ll say, “That’s not really
my first choice. Let’s try to find another piece that will keep
me awake, and challenge me, and really make me full of vigor.”
[Both laugh] Certainly, not all pieces are great. We know
that, and some pieces are greater than others. But from time to time,
it’s interesting to do some pieces that may not be in the top ten.
They’re still very good pieces, and the audience can have true enjoyment
listening to those pieces.
BD: Have there been times when you’ve been
asked to do a piece that you’ve not really wanted to, but when you get
into it you discover that it really is a nice piece?
Levi: Sometimes, and sometimes it’s the other
way round. You knew from the beginning that it’s not a good piece,
and after doing it, you assure yourself you will never do the piece again.
BD: You say the audience must enjoy it.
Where’s the balance between the artistic achievement and the enjoyment
Levi: It’s a difficult balance, because sometimes,
for artistic integrity of an organization, you want to do some pieces
that maybe the audience cannot enjoy the first time they hear them, and
your role then becomes like an educator. You have to be able to present
certain pieces to the audiences. I’m doing new pieces, and they’re
going to hear them for the first time, and maybe they’re not going to be
too enthusiastic about them. But the important thing is how you are
going to balance each one with the rest of that particular program.
If you’re going to throw at audiences only some totally new pieces, I’m afraid
you’re going to play to empty halls. On the other hand, if it’s a good
piece but still very difficult to comprehend the first time you hear it, when
you do it the second time they might discover a few details they are starting
to like, and hopefully, by the third time, they will start saying, “It’s
not bad after all.”
BD: But they’ve got to come back the second
time and the third time.
Levi: That’s right. So, you have to find
the right balance of how to present it to the audience. Maybe you
need do it in a different way. If you bring the composer, you can
talk, and explain certain things, and tell the audience what it’s all
about, and what to listen for. I don’t like to do those kinds of
things, because I find it’s almost like creating a young people’s concert.
But, from time to time, I’m not against it. I will talk to the people
if it’s a new creation, and definitely tell them what the work is all about.
BD: Give them a couple of hints?
Levi: A couple of hints cannot harm.
BD: What advice do you have for composer who
wants to write music for orchestra as we head into the new Millennium?
Levi: They need to write music that will influence
the audience, and that can touch their soul and their heart. They
cannot just create a mental exercise, because people will just ignore
it, and it will disappear. However, if they find a way to touch the
hearts and the souls of the audiences, then they will be very successful.
BD: This leads me to the big question.
What’s the purpose of music?
Levi: [Matter-of-factly] To enrich the
soul of mankind.
BD: Just like that?
Levi: Just like that!
BD: All music does this to a certain degree?
Levi: I don’t know if all music can do that, but
our souls consist of a lot of elements, and different kinds of music can
answer certain things within our souls. There is a lot of variety.
Not every music has to be romantic, or melancholic, or happy, or sad in
very simplistic terms. Every kind of music can have a different
function, with different elements that can intrigue you or that can influence
your soul, or your brain, or your heart. Any of these combinations
* * *
BD: I assume that most of the music
that you conduct is secular rather than sacred, but do you try to find
a spiritual quality in each piece of music?
Levi: Sure, but not in each piece,
because I don’t believe every piece is spiritual. When you conduct
spiritual pieces, yes, you feel something really special happens on stage,
and you really find yourself totally transferred to a different world.
When you wake up and wonder where you are, then you know something
really special happened during that performance. You were totally
so immersed in that music that you forget where you were, and you just
wake up when it’s all over. That was an experience for you, and certain
pieces do that for the audience, as well. When they hear one of those,
it is like a life-experience, and if it’s done really well, you can influence
audiences to an unbelievable degree. They can cry, they can have
tears, they can be speechless, they can have a lot of different expressions.
BD: Do you have any general advice for audiences
that come to your concerts?
Levi: Fasten your seatbelts! [Much laughter]
Try to sit and relax, be objective, and open your ears and your eyes.
Let your senses take over, and wait for the creation that is going to
take place only then, right then, at that moment. It’s a unique
BD: I assume that you enjoy conducting different
kinds of concerts? [Vis-à-vis the recording
shown at right, see my interviews with Robert Shaw, and Stephen Paulus.]
Levi: Absolutely. That’s what keeps me
alive. The challenge is to be able to not limit yourself, and to
feel free musically and artistically to be able to jump from one composer,
one era of music making, to another.
BD: Are you going to be doing more opera?
Levi: Absolutely. This Carmen here
in Chicago was not my first time, as you know. I’ve been in Florence
and Prague, and am going back to both cities. I’ve done several things
in Atlanta, some of them in concert versions, but complete operas with
no cuts. For me it’s a normal balance of my artistic integrity.
BD: You are going to be leaving the position
in Atlanta. [He would be succeeded by Robert Spano, who, at the
time this interview is being posted in 2020, is still there.] Are
you going to be taking up a new position, or are you going to be free-lance
for a while?
Levi: I’m not really preparing right away to take
another position. After being Music Director for twelve years, we
did so many things, and over thirty recordings. It’s a very challenging
position to be a Music Director. It’s very time consuming, and it’s
important to take some time out. Definitely I will only do guest
conducting for the next couple of years, and that way I will recharge my
batteries, and decide what I would like to do. Maybe I will just love
the idea and have the freedom of guest conducting, or I might find an organization
that I feel can be the next great institution. Or, perhaps I could
make a certain institution that is great, even greater. It all depends
on the challenge that I will meet.
BD: You are about to turn fifty. Are you
at the point in your career that you want to be at this age?
Levi: [Laughs] Yes, I think so.
I feel extremely young. I feel I’m at my prime. I feel like
I have done more repertoire than many, many much older conductors, and I
have developed myself in a very special way. I’m very happy with the
way I took an orchestra, like Atlanta, which was just a nice solid orchestra,
and really brought them to a level they never experienced before. Our
recordings are a true testament to what was accomplished, and I proved
to myself that I can take an orchestra and create a great orchestra. That,
for me, was my biggest personal challenge.
BD: Now we expect that everywhere where you
Levi: [Laughs] Yes, of course, and I know
I can do it! There’s no question in my mind, because I remember
what happened when I came to Atlanta. I know what kind of level they
were able to produce then, and I know how I’m leaving them, and the level
of artistic integrity they can produce. For me, that’s my greatest
BD: You’ve appointed quite a number of the
players in the orchestra.
Levi: I hired over thirty per cent of the players.
BD: What do you look for when you’re filling
a desk in the violin section, or the principal oboe, or a percussionist?
Levi: I look for a certain quality that you find
in around the top two per cent. It was always my idea to find a
quality that would be an addition to the orchestra, and would just make
the orchestra sound better. I was very careful over the years,
always looking for the best players I could find, players that I could
work with to help them become much better from what they were. They
had the potential to become truly great players.
* * * *
BD: You’ve conducted all over the world. How
are the audiences different from city to city, or country to country?
Levi: They’re different by the nature
of the culture, from the Far East to somewhere within Europe. You
have so many different nations within Europe, so everyone has different
mentalities. Some are more conservative, some are more open and more
enthusiastic. Some could be very brutal, which is fine. That’s
wonderful. For me, it doesn’t make any difference. It should
not change from your musicmaking. You still have to do the same
way of great musicmaking any place you go.
BD: If you know the audience a little bit,
does that influence your choice of repertoire?
Levi: Sometimes, yes and no. I don’t
see anything wrong with bringing some new repertoire to a place where
they have never heard it. It could be actually very challenging,
and also vice-versa. If you go to Prague and do a Janáček
opera, everyone will tell you you’re crazy. The same for doing Puccini
in Florence. They say, “How dare you?!”
It’s like going to heart or the soul of the Italian people. Puccini’s
birth place was just outside Florence, and everyone can sing all his
operas backwards and forwards. It is, of course, more challenging,
and if you do it really well, and you show them that you do it as well
as they know it, then it’s a great achievement.
BD: Is a lot of your responsibility building
the trust of the audience?
Levi: That’s always the challenge of any artist
— to build trust with your audience. Not
only with the audience but also with the musicians, with the singers, and
with the whole organization.
BD: Are you given enough time to study
and re-study scores?
Levi: Absolutely. You have to do that.
You’re always looking at the next few programs. For example, right
after this Carmen I go to Atlanta, then I go to the Far East, and
to Europe, and every place I do some piece I’ve never conducted before,
which is always a great challenge. It keeps me on my toes.
BD: One last
question... Is conducting fun?
Levi: It is one of the most fulfilling experiences
that anyone can imagine. I really cannot describe the feeling of
making music with a hundred musicians on stage, or, in case of Carmen
you have altogether probably over two hundred people involved. It
is a tremendous dream, a tremendous fulfillment, and I recommend it!
BD: I wish you lots of continued success.
Levi: I certainly hope so.
BD: Thank you so much for speaking with me
Levi: Thank you.
---- ---- ----
© 2000 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded at the Opera House in Chicago on March
6, 2000. Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following July.
This transcription was made in 2019, and posted on
this website in 2020. My thanks to British
soprano Una Barry
for her help in preparing this website presentation.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with
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