Yoni Levyatov: The fantastic realist


June 2014


The pianist Yoni Levyatov is cynical, fatalistic, fleeing and contradictory. At the same time he is funny, colorful, clever and flamboyant. He is a fantastic realist. During the interview, he jumped from one subject to another without apparent connections. In the end we didn’t talk much about music. It was as if he was testing me. I had to read between the lines and guess everything. But I am good at this and was ready for the challenge. When Yoni mentioned that he prefers tennis to Ping-Pong because of its large strokes, I could connect that with his music. In fact, his music is ostentatious and powerful, gracious but powerful. His music is blazing but yet tasteful and unpretentious.


Yoni started playing the piano when he was 6 and arrived in America from Israel in 2002. Asking him what he likes about playing the piano is like asking what he likes about being himself. For him playing the piano is an organic necessity. He feels he is really himself when playing the instrument. “You are what you are. Playing piano is something I am, not something I do. It’s not a question of action; it’s a question of being.”


As for the repertoire, the young man likes to play anything as long as it’s well written “and with not too much sugar”. Yoni considers it essential for musicians to understand how music is written and for composers to understand the performing side of it. “Music belongs to the performer”, believes Yoni who is also composing. “Music has been hijacked by composers a little bit lately. Without performers music doesn’t sound so you always have to consider the performer that is to say the human element – the human element versus the abstract idea.” Actually, performing and composing is the same process but inverted, believes the pianist. The music is up there to be heard by the composer who picks it from heaven and writes it down. Most people can’t do that. The composer has this special gift of inspiration, of hearing the music. The performer is the person who understands what is written on the paper and brings it alive, makes it sound. The performer takes the earthly score and brings it back up to the sky. His job is not a lesser job in any way. He just reverses the actions of the composer. For some reason, very often performers think they are subservient to the composer. But the score is not the music.


It’s when we broached the subject of fashion that Yoni let me deduce the place that the performer has in music, for him. “You look at the models, you think you look at the clothes; no you look at the models. But it’s very hard to disconnect one from the other.” Is it the same with music? You see the gesture of the player and it doesn’t mean you hear the gesture of the music. But still you let yourself be influenced. Lutoslawski said something like: it’s a mere curiosity that a great performer makes a piece that isn’t so great sound great. For Yoni if the piece sounds great then something must be good about it. He insists: music belongs to the performer and if the performer makes it great then it’s not important what the music is otherwise. If you play great and it sounds great that’s all that matters. The fact that the music is not good on paper is irrelevant because it doesn’t mean very much on paper anyways.


If the score by itself is not enough to be called music, recordings are certainly not enough to give you an idea of a musician. Yoni says that before he heard Oscar Peterson live, he honestly didn’t understand what it was all about. But after hearing him live, the young man thought he sounded amazing. Oscar Peterson’s music took on a whole new dimension, even on the very recordings Yoni had listened to before. It’s a psycho-acoustic phenomenon. It’s the same experience as when you see someone’s portrait after having met the person or see the picture of a place after having visited it.


Be yourself, live and let live is one of Yoni’s beliefs in music and in life. “These days everything is illegal and you need a license for everything. I think it’s a bit of an assault on liberty. Generally people like to make legal illegal base on what they like or dislike, which is a complete misunderstanding of the concept of reality.” Sometimes what has to be celebrated is not so much the quality, but the diversity. When he goes to a concert, the pianist wants to hear something that he never heard before. To his great surprise most of the time people want to hear something they know and that they have already heard.


Idealistically Yoni’s life would involve concerts: playing live for live people – either one or a thousand. Live music can’t be replicated. “I am as happy with my life as an intelligent person can be under the circumstances. It’s good to be happy; you know I do that sometimes. People should know how to be happy.” If he were not a pianist perhaps Yoni would have been an interior designer. It might still be something he will do one day. “But it’s not enough to have good ideas, everybody has good ideas”, he says. So what does he need besides ideas? “I need to get up and do it. Ideas are ideas, getting up and doing it: that’s what makes you what you are.” And does it make sense for him to play classical music in the 21th century? “Of course! You don’t follow your calling for any other reason then that it’s your calling. See, finally I said something smart. It was worth waiting for.”