Igor Levit calls himself ‘a person of the now’

Talk about the ultimate compliment. In his farewell column as chief classical music critic of the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini mentioned four of today’s new artists he sees as “stars,” and pianist Igor Levit made the list. 

It’s the latest in an already long list of honors for the 34-year-old Russian-German pianist who won the prestigious Gilmore Artist Award in 2018 and was named Gramophone’s Artist of the Year in 2020.

“I’m grateful for each of those,” Levit said from Helsinki, where he was visiting one of his former teachers. “I really am. And I don’t take it for granted, none of it. But I’m not a person who looks back. I’m a person of now and tomorrow and not of the past.”

Levit, who made his Chicago debut in 2017, is scheduled to return Jan. 16 for a Symphony Center Presents Piano Series recital. Anchoring the program is Fred Hersch’s Variations on a Folk Song, which is set to receive its world premiere three days earlier at Carnegie Hall, when the pianist presents the same line-up there. 

A 15-time Grammy Award nominee, Hersch ranks among the top pianists and composers in the jazz world. Levit unexpectedly attended one of his concerts a few years ago at New York’s Village Vanguard, with the keyboardist performing with his trio and ending with a solo take on Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes” as an encore. Levit calls it one of the one of the most unforgettable musical experiences of his life.

“That night I experienced a kind of piano playing I had never seen in my life before — like literally never,” Levit said. “The way this man would breathe, touch the piano, phrase — everything. It was like seeing fire for the first time. I just had tears in my eyes that night.”

He approached Hersch after the concert, and the two have become close since. About a year ago, he asked the composer if he would write a work for him, and Hersch readily agreed. Levit received the resulting composition in early December, and he has been learning it since. 

In a conversation with Levit, Hersch once compared jazz with tennis, noting that after the opening serve, everything that follows in a game is a reaction to what has just happened. Much the same applies to jazz, which typically begins with a set tune but quickly turns into free-flowing, improvisatory give and take.

While there will be no improvisation in Levit’s recital, he nonetheless drew inspiration from Hersch’s tennis metaphor as he grouped Hersch’s new work with: Beethoven’s Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109; Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor, and Zoltán Kocsis’ arrangement of the Prelude from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.     

“All these pieces, they really make you just go with it,” Levit said. “Just see where it brings you. You kick it off, and it’s this never-ending storytelling, this free-flying narration. It’s just wonderful — this physical and emotional experience of letting it go and seeing where it brings you.”