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Ear Candy

The life's work of Bob Levy '66 is a musical smorgasbord.

Bob Levy ’66 feels like a “little kid in a candy store just waiting to dig into the treats” whenever a newly composed score arrives in the mail. More than four decades after his four “truly memorable years” as an IC student, the composer, conductor, trumpet performer, and teacher still has that sweet tooth for contemporary music, and he still exudes the kind of energy one would expect from a kid set loose in a store full of treats.

In a career bringing him to numerous countries on four continents, he has recorded more than 35 albums on 12 labels, as trumpet soloist and conductor, with jazz groups, brass quintets, and chamber groups. Many of these projects were with some of the leading brass and jazz artists in the world. In all his work Bob is generous in his efforts to promote the work of fellow composers.

“Bob Levy is one of the most dedicated supporters of contemporary composers and literature I know,” says his former classmate Tom Everett ’66, M.S. ’69, director of bands at Harvard University. “Bob’s tireless crusade, even as an IC student, for commissioning, performing, organizing, and promoting new music has remained an influence and inspiration for me to this day.”

Bob credits Glenn Brown ’36 with steering him toward Ithaca College. Father of IC music professor Steve Brown ’64, M.M. ’68, the elder Brown was music supervisor of a jazz camp in New Hampshire at which Bob spent “four glorious summers.” Once at IC, Bob was especially influenced by faculty composer Warren Benson, who passed away in October 2005, and saxophone professor Donald Sinta, now at the University of Michigan. Their enthusiasm and energy, Bob says, “were a real turn-on. They showed me all kinds of new works and ways of listening. Music of our time needs to be heard.”

Benson, Sinta, and other IC faculty, including violist George Andrix, brass ensemble conductor Robert Prins, percussionist Terry Hulick ’58, and choral director Gregg Smith, as well as area legends Frank Battisti ’53, M.S. ’64 and honorary doctor of music (H.D.M.) ’92, Karel Husa, H.D.M. ’58 (later IC faculty) all regularly performed and commissioned new works, and brought composer John Huggler (later composer-in-residence with the Boston Symphony) to campus.

Through Benson and Sinta, Bob met composer Alec Wilder, whose music was such a unique blend of American musical traditions that critics and audiences found it difficult to classify. The two formed a friendship and association that began Bob’s lifelong quest to bring his colleague’s music greater notoriety. “Without a doubt Wilder has had the greatest influence on my life, musically and personally,” Bob says. “Our society likes to label people. If you’re involved with jazz musicians and someone learns you conduct a wind ensemble, they can’t believe it. Like you’re only allowed to do one thing! That’s been the problem with Alec Wilder. The point is that he’s an American composer, every bit the original as Ives, Gershwin, or Bernstein.”

In 1976 Bob formed the Wilder Duo for trumpet and marimba with Gordon Stout, IC professor of percussion; for 12 years they premiered numerous works, performing throughout the United States and inspiring new works by Wilder, IC’s violist Andrix, Allan Blank, Eric Ewazen, David Snow, Steven Stucky, Paul Turok, and many others.

“My time with Bob Levy and the Wilder Duo was one of the most productive and rewarding periods of my career,” says Stout. “It was the first and only time I have worked with a brass player for an extended period. Bob was an amazing trumpeter and musician who had a never-ending supply of energy, ideas, and conviction. My musical experiences with Bob are some of the most important and vital of my musical life.”

Even now, more than a quarter century since Wilder’s death in 1980, Bob is an advocate for his music, working to make more recordings and published editions available. He’s making a documentary film of Wilder’s life and has collected interviews with Studs Terkel, Gunther Schuller, Mitch Miller, Marian McPartland, H.D.M. ’92, and Tony Bennett. And as part of the Friends of Alec Wilder organization, Bob performs a concert of Wilder’s music every year in New York City; this year his friend clarinetist Stephen Hart ’68 will perform one of Wilder’s pieces.

Bob promotes the work of other contemporary composers as well. As director of bands and trumpet professor at Lawrence University in Wisconsin from 1979 to 2004, he brought to campus composers Warren Benson, Paul Creston, Eric Ewazen, Walter Hartley, Dina Koston, Rodney Rogers, Gunther Schuller, and many others. He premiered more than 20 works by American composers; many were professionally recorded. For years he also directed the Evenings of New Music faculty concert series. “Those Lawrence years were exciting,” Bob says. “Even though the school was best known in the Midwest, the number of music majors increased from about 140 when I arrived to close to 400 some 25 later.”

He also spent 31 summers at the Red Lodge Music Festival in Montana, taught at Interlochen and Tanglewood, and appeared at numerous festivals as a guest artist. He has held guest residencies at conservatories in Australia and China, and made three teaching trips to Haiti. Bob retired “a bit early” from university teaching to devote time to serious composing, but after a year he was called by the University of Wisconsin– Madison to direct its Contemporary Chamber Ensemble and top wind ensemble. Naturally, the ensemble premiered a new work—by faculty composer Joseph Koykkar.

Bob enjoys his multifaceted career. “I joke with young students pondering careers in music that I can’t really decide what I want to be when I grow up, but I know it’s in music,” he laughs.

Clarinetist Hart admires his friend’s energy. “Bob was two years ahead of me in school, and I thought of him as my mentor. I was always in awe of his work ethic, drive, spirit, and artistry,” says Hart. “It’s been an honor to know him. Even though Bob retired from college teaching, he still manages to have a zillion projects going on. He has always remained dedicated to promoting new music, and he is a real ‘doer.’ ”

Working in “so many dimensions,” Bob says, “has been rewarding and fulfilling. I feel very fortunate to have experienced truly exciting things in the world of contemporary music.” No matter his accomplishments, Bob Levy will always be like that proverbial kid in a candy store, digging into new musical treats. Sweet.

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