Stage notes: Akron Symphony opens season with pianist Hammer

By Kerry Clawson
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Levi Hammer will be the soloist for Mozarts Piano Concerto No. 25 for the Akron Symphony Orchestra's opening-night concert Sunday, Sept. 15 at E.J. Thomas Hall. He is the Akron Symphony Orchestras assistant conductor and music director of the Akron Youth Symphony. (The Akron Symphony Orchestra)

Akron Symphony Assistant Conductor Levi Hammer will play Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major in concert for the first time Sunday for the orchestra’s opening night.

The event, which also will feature Ron Nelson’s Savannah River Holiday and Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor, will be at 7:30 p.m. at the University of Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall.

“It’s a big deal for me because I’m not so much a pianist anymore,’’ said Hammer, who has focused on conducting in recent years. “Nowadays, when I do Mozart, it’s almost always in the form of his operatic or symphonic output. But it’s especially nice to have the opportunity to return to my pianistic roots and play this concerto that I’ve always dreamed of performing with such a great conductor, a wonderful orchestra, and paired with Brahms!”

Hammer studied conducting, piano, composition and languages at the University Mozarteum Salzburg, Rice University and Arizona State University. He came to the Akron Symphony after working with Benjamin Zander at the Boston Philharmonic, accompanying Zander in 2010 on his last trip to the Akron Symphony. Hammer was a Zander Conducting Fellow, as was his ASO predecessor, Christopher Lees, and current Akron Symphony Music Director Christopher Wilkins.

This will be the fourth concerto Hammer will perform under Wilkins’ baton with the Akron Symphony, following Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and I Got Rhythm Variations.

As an ASO assistant conductor as well as music director of the Akron Youth Symphony, Hammer is at the piano nearly every day studying symphonic and operatic scores, working with singers or on chamber music for his own engagements. He performs in solo recital about once a year.

Hammer said coming into conducting as a pianist is an unusual path for Americans these days: Being a pianist who works with singers and learning the operatic repertoire as a pianist is a 19th century German tradition.

Pianist/conductor Leonard Bernstein was Hammer’s hero when he was a teenager. Now, he looks to pianists/conductors such as Robert Spano, music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra who previously was a conducting professor at Oberlin.

“His and my pianism informs all that we do as musicians,” Hammer said of himself and Spano, who has a huge international career and remains active as a pianist.

As a young conductor, Hammer is constantly studying the classical repertoire, which he describes as a lifetime’s work: “If you really want to become a great conductor, you have to systematically learn the entire repertoire.”

In Hammer’s outreach talks in the community about the orchestra’s opening night concert, he asks school children basic questions such as “What is a concerto?” and answers, “It’s a soloist performing a solo with the orchestra.”

He talks about the rising drama of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25, with the soloist playing in opposition to the orchestra.

“It’s a perfect piece of music, just so expressive,” he said of the concerto, which possesses a symphonic quality with a larger orchestra than most concertos have.

“All Mozart is opera. Even his non-opera music is opera, so it’s full of drama and theatricality and contrast,” Hammer said.

The piece begins with the grandeur of the Allegro maestoso and moves into the tranquil Andante movement, which Hammer thinks of as an aria.

“I play it like a great soprano would sing,” he said.

Hammer, who was associate conductor this summer at Central City Opera in Colorado, is also looking forward to a repertoire full of Puccini, Verdi, Rossini, Ravel, Beethoven, Faure, Barber, Mozart, Dvorak and more with the Akron Youth Symphony this season.

Cost for the Akron Symphony’s opening concert Sunday is $25. Call 330-535-8131 or see www.akronsymphony.org.

New collaboration

The Illusion Factory, the Akron Area Arts Alliance and classical guitarist James Marron have teamed up to create an original stage production of The Remarkable Farkle McBride, based on the book written by actor John Lithgow, a former Akron resident. Lithgow’s 2000 book, illustrated by C.F. Payne of Ohio, tells about young musical genius Farkle who can’t quite find his place in the orchestra.

Sandy Kreisman, executive director for AAAA, has always loved the book and welcomed a chance to re-tell the story for families. She teamed up last fall with Amanda Garrard, new artistic/administrative director of the Illusion Factory, a tenant at Summit Artspace.

They received permission from Lithgow to do a staged reading of the work, accompanied by Marron playing his original music on guitar with University of Akron musicians from the New Music Ensemble. Readings will occur at 2 and 4 p.m. Sunday at Summit Artspace’s second floor event space. The event is free for children and Downtown Akron Partnership Passport holders, $5 for adults.

The play is recommended for children ages 2 to 7 and their families. A narrator will begin telling the story by moving among the musicians to show off each instrument Farkle attempts to play. Children may ask the musicians and narrators questions after the show.

For more information on the artistic collaboration, call 330-376-5700 or see www.theillusionfactory.org.

Announcements

• Elynmarie Kazle of Akron, production manager for the Akron School for the Arts Theatre Division and an independent consultant in performing arts fundraising and production management, has been elected to a three-year term on the Board of Directors of the United States Institute for Theatre Technology, a 4,000-member national association for the backstage industry. The Ohio University graduate created USITT’s Stage Management Mentoring Project as well as a similar project at Firestone High School.

• Magical Theatre Company will hold its fifth annual “A Magical Wine Tasting” fundraiser 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Galaxy Restaurant, 201 Park Centre Drive, Wadsworth. The evening will include wine samplings, small plates and a gift basket raffle. Cost is $35, advance sales only. Call 330-848-3708.

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com.


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