When you talk to Gary Levinson, he vibrates with positive energy. His packed schedule includes being the Senior Associate Concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony while teaching a studio full of exceptional students and keeping up an international concert career. But when Board President John Forrester approached him about taking over the moribund Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth’s concert series, he happily accepted and managed to fit in the duties. The results have been astounding. Attendance went from so-so to sold out and the buzz is off the charts.
“The society had a fine reputation, a healthy budget and a supportive board of directors,” Levinson says. “With that wind at my back, I knew we could put on a series of first-class performances.”
And so they did.
Levinson’s years at the top of the classical music world certainly helped.
“The first thing I did was to call in some favors. In order to stick to the budget, I asked some friends who I knew would work for what we can afford rather than what they are worth and usually get for a performance. While I was not surprised that all agreed to play, I was quite gratified that they did,” he says.
Levinson came up with a three-pronged approach to planning a season. He would continue to use outstanding local musicians, which was a hallmark of the group in the past. Then, he would do one exceptional special event and would bring in internationally acclaimed chamber music groups to fill out the season. His first season reflected this philosophy and the audiences loved it.
The first “special event” was very special indeed and demonstrates why Levinson is so successful.
Some years ago, the highly acclaimed Vermeer String Quartet disbanded. Amazingly, Levinson prevailed on the members to reassemble for his first series, as a personal favor, and to play their signature concert—a performance of Haydn’s string quartet based on the seven last words of Christ on the cross.
“The beauty of this piece is more than musical because of the meditations,” said Levinson. “It allowed us to invite seven religious and philosophical leaders to offer the brief meditations between the movements. We had Father Elizondo from the San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio as well as a Rabbi, an Imam, scholars, and Pastors. It was held in the new Renzo Piano Pavilion of the Kimbell Art Museum and Renzo Piano, the architect, attended himself.”
The performance became an even more meaningful event in that the long time cellist of the quartet, Marc Johnson, died unexpectedly less than a week before the concert. Kurt Baldwin of the Arianna Quartet agreed to step in at the last minute.
“The performance became a memorial concert for Marc and an event that we will all remember for the rest of our lives,” says Levinson.
Levinson’s planning for the future will fit the pattern he set for this first successful season and he is already planned three years out. As far as repertoire, he programs works that the assembled players already know to maximize rehearsal time.
“The top level musicians have a wide repertoire, so I am not really limited in programming. Also, many of them are booked three or more years out, so if we want to bring them here, we have to get in line,” he says. “Also, this advance planning allows me to use them when they are relatively close to Fort Worth and they can fit us in while they are touring elsewhere. This helps staying within the budget while still presenting the best musicians.”
He added extensive community outreach and educational programs as well.
“The artists who come here to play give master classes to talented students and those classes are open to the public. They are also well attended,” he adds.
Levinson is modest when asked if his program could be a model for other struggling chamber music organizations around the country.
“The secret is finding out what the audience wants and then delivering for them. Also it is important that, besides playing what they want to hear, you offer some music that you think they should hear. That way they can keep up with what is going on musically outside of their community. It is really as simple as that,” Levinson says with a smile.
And as complicated.
Editor's Note: In our first ever Forward Thinkers series, we look at the people who made the performing arts more engaging in 2014—and are setting the stage for the future. We'll run profiles through the first few months of 2015.