MUSIC : Promising Young Pianist Plays on Emotion With Classics : Max Levinson strives to re-create feelings of period pieces. The 18-year-old will perform Thursday in Seal Beach.

Pianist Max Levinson, 18, didn't have second thoughts about electing to be an English major at Harvard University.

"Music is the most important thing for me, but I also felt it was important to get a broad-based education, which does have a very large effect on how I approach music," Levinson said Monday from his parents' home in West Los Angeles.

"For instance, if I understand that a Romantic composer may have felt that man's nature was fundamentally emotional, to know that, I understand a little bit better how one should approach a piece of Romantic music.

"Mozart, on the other hand, came out of an era in which man's nature was believed to be more rational, and so the art is more rational. It's important to know those things."

Levinson has picked music that reflects the emotional side of man's nature--works by Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin and Debussy--for a recital Thursday, part of the Seal Beach Music Festival series.

Levinson, who played with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1985 and won, as a member of the Trio con Brio, the 1988 Coleman Chamber Music Competition, began playing the piano when he was 5, but it was not the only instrument that interested him.

"From the time I was 8 until about 17, I also studied very seriously the cello," he said. "I studied them equally and had about equal success on both of them, however you can define success.

"But I decided about a year ago, in order to really succeed on either instrument, I'd have to focus on one. I decided I want to focus my life on my piano playing."

Some young pianists hedge about their musical preferences, but not Levinson. "There are definitely composers that I really like more than others," he said. "The ones I like the best are probably Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Brahms, and some of the second Viennese school, (such as) Schoenberg and Berg.

"But I haven't really decided to pigeonhole myself in terms of repertory or some kind of composers."

To Levinson, the music of Schoenberg and Berg does not represent "so much of a big jump" from the Germanic romanticism of Schumann and Brahms.

"I feel the music of Berg, especially, and also Schoenberg, is very emotional, full of a kind of Angst and a kind of intensity that can really not be expressed in any other way," he said.

Even with his studies at Harvard, Levinson manages to practice "at least five hours a day.

"That's really what I need in order to do as well as I would like," he said. "Basically, that's my priority, finding enough time to practice. . . .

"I never practice scales or things like that, just repertory I'm working on. I try to look at it from different angles. One way is to analyze the work harmonically, like we all learn in music theory classes, and there are different ways of doing that. . . .

"But I think that your particular style of analysis, what aspects of the music jump out at you--rhythmic, harmonic or motivic things--are what make you the particular artist you are.

"There are certain things I notice in the music, which pretty much define my personality. I couldn't say what they are . . . a lot of people think I'm a very intense, concentrated and focused player. I couldn't say."

When Levinson is not practicing, he's likely to be reading "good literature, which is why, basically, I decided to be an English major.

"That in a way is a kind of release. I don't consider it studying or working. The same goes for music. I enjoy it so much, while practicing or listening to recordings, it doesn't feel like working."

As for studying other pianists through recordings, Levinson said, "I usually don't.

"My least favorite things to listen to are recordings of other pianists," he said. "I've formed such a strong opinion myself of how the piano ought to be played, it's hard to enjoy listening to anyone else playing it."

But singers are another matter.

"I love listening to singers, such as (Dietrich) Fischer-Dieskau," he said. "That's my favorite thing to listen to. Plus recordings of orchestral and chamber music, especially music I can't possibly play because it doesn't include the piano.

"I always aspire to sound like the voice or an orchestra, something that I can enjoy without having to think about it or comparing myself."

For his Thursday recital, Levinson picked "a fairly balanced program . . . and all of the music I really love."

Levinson will play works by Brahms, Chopin and Debussy on a program that opens with Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata.

"The challenge of the 'Appassionata' is, for me personally, not being carried away with the appassionata character of the work," he said. "If you give everything you have, and particularly if it's the first work on the program, every minute of the 20 minutes it takes you, the effect of the intensity is kind of deadening.

"It's such a wonderful work, you want to bring out every single nuance and wonderful moment. Personally, I have to guard against that. So you have to decide what to bring out."

Levinson will close with Chopin's G-minor Ballade. "It's so wonderfully written for the piano, if you can only play what Chopin wants you to play, there's no problem for the performer," he said, with a self-deprecating laugh.

At this point, Levinson is wary about whether he will pursue a career in music.

"For the time being, I want to progress in trying to keep getting performances and just have more and more people hear me and take lessons to improve the way I play," he said.

"Of course, making a career involves a lot of luck. (But) luck strikes more often than you think. I think it's a matter of being prepared for it when it strikes."

Pianist Max Levinson will play works by Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin and Debussy at 8 p.m. Thursday at the McGaugh School auditorium, 1695 Bolsa Ave., Seal Beach. The free program is part of the Seal Beach Chamber Music Festival. Information: (213) 596-4749.

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