Concert pianist Frank Lévy
Concert pianist Frank Lévy

Q&A: This Moroccan Jewish concert pianist is never off key

Name: Frank Lévy
City: Sunnyvale
Age: Mid-50s
Position: Concert pianist, San Jose State professor

J.: You were born in Morocco and raised in Switzerland. How did your experiences in those places affect you and your family as Jews?

Frank Lévy: We left Tangier when I was 6 months old. In 1959, when Tangier came under the control of the Moroccan government and was no longer an international free port, every time there was an accident or a crime, it happened to be a Jew [who was blamed or involved], so we got the message and everybody left.

In Switzerland, in Heidi country, I was the only boy with black hair in a country where everyone had blue eyes and blond hair. There was a lot of anti-Semitism, and I came home crying … of course, as a kid, I had no word for it. For a Jew, there is always a sense of dislocation, of being the wanderer, a stranger. I felt the Jewish experience always to be the other. It gives you a sensitivity.

You entered the Geneva Conservatory of Music at 15 and went on to earn a master’s and a doctorate. What was your musical experience as a child?

My father played the accordion, and thanks to him, I am a musician. I was raised on a mixture of Jewish tunes and pop music — by pop music, I mean ballades like those of Yves Montand and Jacques Brel. This to me was always the height of emotion.

The videos one can access on franklevy.com show you playing Brahms, Schubert, Liszt and Chopin pieces primarily in minor keys, which offer a pensive, melancholy mood. Do you feel more at home in minor because of your experience with Jewish music?

It’s funny you mention that. When I was a kid, I loved minor so much that I transposed all the major sonatas to minor. I was always upset when the composer would modulate to major. Then later, I discovered Schubert is sometimes the saddest in major. With Schubert, a sad smile can be more powerful than tears.

Speaking of emotion, you have been called a poet at the keyboard, completely absorbed in the music. How do you infuse a piece with your own stamp while remaining true to the composer’s intentions?

The great Leonard Bernstein was asked, “How is that you do such extraordinary Mahler?” His answer: “I feel as though I wrote them.” Maybe music itself is more than the notes or the markings. If you take a notation like “piano,” what is it? Is it a decibel level? An intensity? A feeling? We have lots of markings, but I like to remember that before they were written down, they were felt. When I see a forte by Chopin, I say “the alleged forte.” … In music, your feeling is the meaning.

Is music a family activity in your Sunnyvale home?

Dalia, 12, plays the cello, and David, 10 plays the violin. My youngest is Dinu, 2. The older children both play piano, as does my wife, Ilana Belitskaya-Lévy, who is a biostatistician.

So you have a family chamber trio?

When you do music with your children, something quite extraordinary happens; you hear them in a different register. You can see other regions of the soul. 

Before coming to San Jose State, you taught for 13 years in the pre-college division at the Juilliard School in New York. You also give private lessons to students of all ages and levels, including beginners. What are the challenges?

It’s my favorite thing in life to do. I love all students. I never think in terms of levels. The art of studying music has nothing to do with paying the rent with it or being famous or giving concerts. It’s a language. It opens up a region of the soul of a young person that that would not open up otherwise.

How do you encourage students to practice?

I’m writing a book about the art of practicing, which needs to be redefined. I would say if practicing means doing the same thing another 500 times before lunch, then I’m with all the children and parents who hate it. Practicing is researching, and thinking is never boring. I might tell a student to play a piece by Chopin three different ways. The very idea of playing every day the same thing in the same way in the same tempo is my idea of hell.

Frank Lévy will play at the pre-Rosh Hashanah musical program “To a Sweet Year!” at 11:30 a.m. Sept. 19 at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto. tinyurl.com/sweet-pajcc

“Talking With” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to sueb@jweekly.com.

Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent is a writer and editor living in Palo Alto. She can be reached at ghentwriter@gmail.com.