The car wreck of an American piano star

Joseph Horowitz has an interesting essay in LA Review of Books on the once-celebrated Oscar Levant, now all but forgotten.

Among other things he writes:

Levant even commissioned Schoenberg’s 12-tone Piano Concerto — though they wound up haggling over the price tag. He intended to perform the premiere, practiced the music — and gave up. Levant’s own Piano Concerto bristles with Schoenberg’s influence (you can hear Levant perform it on YouTube, with the NBC Symphony). Levant characteristically opined: “[T]his music reflects an arrogance and a pretentiousness based on an economic and emotional insecurity. However, those are days we now look back on as happy.” 

Levant, however, got hooked on fame.

(Jack) Paar variously called Levant “a man for whom living is a sideline,” “my favorite far-outpatient,” and “one of America’s true geniuses.” He also quipped: “He’s as nervous as he is clever — for every pearl that comes out of his mouth, a pill goes in.” He enjoined his audience to bear in mind that “appearing here is good for Oscar; he looks forward to it. He enjoys an audience’s warmth again. Just coming here is therapy for him.”

Levant died in 1972, aged 65.

Read on here.


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  • A far better pianist than he is given credit for being. A wit, song-writer, actor, writer…not so bad for a “train wreck””. Would there were more train wrecks like him.

  • I can recall him on television. Though as I child I had hardly any sophistication about such things, there was a fascination in wondering how much was shtick and how much genuine neurosis. The guess was quite a bit of both. Those late Levant appearances have an interesting resonance with rising comics like Shelley Berman and Woody Allen. (Of course, Freudian-influenced humor had been around for quite a while.)

    • It was rare for me as a kid to be allowed to stay up late to watch TV but now and then I’d see the Jack Parr show, and every once in a while Oscar Levant would be a guest. As a child my reaction was that something seemed very wrong, very “off,” about both of them.

      I do not recall Levant playing any music on the Parr show, just talking. I have heard some of his recordings (he recorded some standard repertoire concertos for Columbia in addition to the A. Rubenstein) and the guy sure could play. I seem to recall reading that when he died the music on his piano’s music desk was Schubert sonatas.

      I didn’t see it myself but remember my folks commenting about it the next day – the infamous show where Jack Parr asked Oscar Levant if there was something, anything, he’d always wanted to be but had never been. Levant had snarled “Yes. An orphan.” I think that made headlines and as I recall it was a long time before Levant appeared on television again.

  • He will always be remembered as a film star, in supporting roles, for anyone who still watches the classic Hollywood musicals of the 1950’s. As a pianist he is certainly forgotten.

  • Another vote for Oscar Levant’s own piano concerto, which he recorded, and Anton Rubinstein’s fourth in D minor, although nobody played it like Josef Hofmann; Earl Wild, Friedrich Wuehrer, Gregori Ginzburg, and Marc-Andre Hamelin tried, and Levant deserves credit for reviving it.

    I think Levant recorded Poulenc’s “Movements perpetuelles” before Artur Rubinstein and “Rope”.

    “My Life, or the Story of George Gershwin” and some good stories sum up their wry relations, but I liked Jesus Maria Sanroma’s “Rhapsody in Blue with Fiedler” more than Oscar’s or George’s; heresy, I know. Even Richter playeded Concerto in F. There’s a live record.

    “I’m a concert pianist. That’s another way of saying I’m unemployed”, Levant claimed. He and his fellow neurotic Vladimir Horowitz considered buyiing ads in “Musical America” announcing they were available for a limited number of cancellations that season. Remember “Information Please”? And the perfect wise-cracking on radio and in films?

  • Levant was never a car wreck, he was a damn good pianist. And so, dare I say, was Leonard Pennario, of whom little or nothing is heard nowadays.

    • Responding to Robert Groen.– Leonard Pennario is the only pianist I know whom Jascha Heifetz complimented on stage during a performance, saying “Bravo!” audibly for Pennario;s playing of difficult runs in a piano trio, I think Arensky’s. As Pennario told the story, he was so startled he nearly missed his next entrance.

  • Oscar and Vladimir Horowitz were friends during the years Levant lived in NYC. It’s pretty well known that both frequently cancelled appearances.

    Oscar once suggested to Vladimir that they issue a joint press release reading “Vladimir Horowitz and Oscar Levant announce that they are available for a limited number of cancellations.”

  • About a dozen years ago I performed what was said to have been the first complete performance of Levant’s “Suite for Orchestra” (imagine Berg’s “Three Pieces for Orchestra” with an American accent). It’s quite a good work; if Copland’s statement “If it’s in the music, it’s in the man” is accurate, then Levant was as formidable a creator of music as a recreator.

  • Oscar Levant is not forgotten in film. The movies he was in were not always good but he was always good in them.

    The history of musicians attempting to be actors is littered with failures but Levant was a natural at it.

  • This pianist’s own concerto sounds like a nightmare Schoenberg had after accidentally getting drunk at an American coctail bar.

    • This is the goad that will cause me to find a recording to listen to. Although how ‘drunk at an American bar’ differs from being ‘drunk at an N. bar’, don’t know.

  • For the pleasure of writing their names, and for the record, the other regulars with Oscar Levant on radio”Information Please” programs were John Kiernan, Franklin P. Adams, and the untuous Clifton Fadiman, who asked the questions and tried to keep order. Dorothy Thompson may have been a guest.

    Fadiman wrote reviews for Book of the Month Club and let Thomas Mann down with a daunting critique of Mann’s musical novel “Doctor Faustus”. Fadiman atoned for this by calling J. W. N. Sullivan’s “Beethoven, His Spiritual Development” the best book on music he knew.

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