In his relatively young career, classical guitarist Adam Levin has traversed an impressive amount of territory as an international performing and recording artist. The fourth album of his critically hailed series 21st Century Spanish Guitar, released in August 2021, chronicles the most recent chapter in the Spanish guitar legacy by spotlighting new solo works (and one concerto) by contemporary Spanish composers.
The recording is one among a dozen in Levin’s catalog of solo and collaborative projects. His touring and recording schedule comprises solo appearances and bookings with three different ensembles. The Great Necks, a group he founded with grad-school colleagues Matthew Rohde and Scott Borg, has been turning heads by fearlessly reducing piano and orchestral repertoire (such as Jean Sibelius’ Finlandia and Gustav Holst’s The Planets) to the guitar trio format with astonishing musical creativity and virtuosity. Duo Mantar finds Levin in league with gifted mandolinist Jacob Reuven playing music by noted Israeli composers. Duo Sonidos, featuring stellar violinist William Knuth, plays a range of music—its 2019 album, Wild Dance, includes selections ranging from Gershwin songs to film music to arrangements of concert works by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Lukas Foss, Karol Szymanowski, and others.
Levin has won first prize in four international competitions and taken top prizes in three others. Additionally, he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship and the Kate Neal Kinley Memorial Fellowship. These honors afforded him the opportunity to live and study in Spain for three years, during which time he commissioned almost 40 living composers spanning multiple generations to write the works he would premiere on the 21st Century Spanish Guitar series. When the fourth volume was released, it went immediately to Number One on Billboard’s Traditional Classical Albums chart.
A Firm Foundation
Levin grew up in Lake Bluff, Illinois, a town 30 miles north of Chicago. His mother is an options trader and his father a clinical psychologist. The senior Levin is also an amateur guitarist and guitar collector who introduced his son to classical guitar. “My father and a great Japanese teacher, Shinobu Sato, taught me in the early days,” Levin recalls. “My father would get me up at the crack of dawn, 5 AM, to practice—not without a lot of kicking and screaming on my part. But as I look back on that, it was a beautiful period of time. In the early morning I was so fresh and clear-minded. I really catapulted myself through lots of technical stuff and repertoire.”
Sato stressed right-hand planting, scales, and arpeggios, and they worked on the Segovia scales (fingerings for the major and minor scales) and Segovia’s edition of 20 Sor Studies. “By the time I was 16, I was playing the Bach ‘Chaconne’ and all of the Villa-Lobos etudes and preludes,” says Levin. “Sato was staunch about gaining an understanding of a substantial body of repertoire.”
When it came time for college, Levin had dual interests he hoped to combine. He sought to explore his father’s path by taking psychology and pre-med classes, while also working toward a music career. He applied to NEC (New England Conservatory of Music), where Eliot Fisk chairs the guitar program. “Eliot called my folks out of the blue saying he was impressed by my audition tape and really wanted me to study with him,” Levin says. “I had always been starstruck by Eliot; he was at the apex of the guitar world for me. I faced a difficult choice.”
As it turned out, Chicago-area Northwestern University, which had a five-year program that would enable Levin to study classical guitar and the sciences, won the coin toss. “The Northwestern program was stronger for what I wanted,” says Levin, “but, I [also] became Eliot’s private student and went monthly for lessons with him in Boston during the five years I spent at Northwestern.”
At the university, he studied guitar with Anne Waller, whom he credits with cementing his musicality and helping him become a solid player. He earned bachelor’s degrees in both music performance and psychology before heading to NEC for a master’s program with Fisk.
Pathway to Musicianship
“I firmly believe that NEC and my study with Eliot was the path toward my becoming a learned musician,” Levin says. “He was the kind of guitarist and human being I wanted to be—someone who commanded many facets of life, not just classical guitar, but music in general. Studying with Eliot is a special process. He understands your personality and is so encouraging and idealistic. He always told me to create a global vision and a 21st-century career with many facets. He understood classical guitar and his own career, and he saw that serving the ivory tower was no longer the ideal or where the profession was going. You have to express yourself through many means: collaborations, chamber music, creating arts infrastructure, and finding fresh repertoire. I had a power-packed seven years of study with Eliot.”
After earning his graduate degree, Levin’s next goal was to study abroad, and with Fisk’s input, he crafted a proposal for a Fulbright scholarship. The final plan involved Levin going to Spain, where he would study, perform, commission, and record new Spanish guitar music. “I realized it was high time to do what Segovia, [Julian] Bream, [John] Williams, Fisk, [Sharon] Isbin, and others did by championing new music,” Levin says. “That became the genesis for the 21st Century Spanish Guitar album series.”
He began his Fulbright in 2008, studying with Gabriel Estarellas, a proponent of new Spanish music who gave Levin introductions to many composers. He discovered that a new renaissance in Spanish music was happening, producing a more cosmopolitan, global Spanish music than the beloved Iberian repertoire of the 19th and 20th centuries. He found the basic Spanish musical DNA in the music, but also neoclassicism, avant-garde, atonal, and electronic elements. In addition to the Fulbright, Levin received support from the Program for Cultural Cooperation and the Kate Neal Kinley Memorial Fellowship, which enabled him to continue in Madrid for three years.
Working directly with composers was a new experience. “With all the music I’d studied up to that point, I learned about composers and their music through books and mentors that were secondary and tertiary sources,” he says. “This was an opportunity to talk to the primary sources to get their opinion on how things sounded.”
Life Beyond the Premiere
Levin is optimistic that works from the large body of music he’s brought forth will enter the guitar canon. He cites “Dues Noves Suggestions” by Salvador Brotons, appearing on the first volume, as a piece with a future. It’s lyrical, evocative, and instantly appealing. Receiving “Espacio de Guitarra” (“Guitar Space”) from Cristóbal Halffter for the third album was a particular triumph. Halffter, who passed away in 2021 at the age of 91, was esteemed for his large-scale orchestral works, and it took repeated queries from Levin over the course of seven years to find a time when Halffter could write the piece (in 2015).
Catalan-American composer Leonardo Balada, Fisk had told Levin, “is the epitome of 21st-century Spanish music.” He fuses the old and new worlds and contributed multi-movement Caprichos to all four 21st Century Spanish Guitar volumes. Balada created abstractions on themes of past Spanish masters, including Enrique Granados, Isaac Albéniz, and Manuel de Falla.
Cuban-Spanish composer Eduardo Morales-Caso contributed to three of the four records. Levin worked so frequently with him, that, “Eduardo has become like an older brother to me,” he says. The fourth album features a major Morales-Caso contribution: Concierto de La Herradura. “I think this concerto will be the new thing,” says Levin. “It’s a wild piece, expressive, and has an angelic, buoyant second movement. The work is really attractive and super Spanish with a personal voice.”
Also appearing on Vol. 4, Jorge Muñiz’s Portraits from the Heartland stands out with its nod toward American bluegrass music. “Muñiz comes from the north of Spain and is a disciple of Leonardo Balada,” Levin says. “Balada has championed folk music through his avant-garde music, and Muñiz feels similarly about folk music. You hear what sounds like a banjo in the second movement. It is a wonderful piece, and it draws people in. At every point, I am trying to look for connections, bridges for our audience. How can we invite them in and make this music stick? Discovering how to do this is a pathway to the classical guitar’s long-term sustainability and success in the concert hall. I think Portraits of the Heartland does this very well.”
A Passion for Service
It was Fisk who ignited Levin’s passion for community service through music during his years at NEC when he began focusing on underserved youth and residents at nursing homes. “I did outreach through the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship to develop programs of study for at-risk high school students” Levin states. “I also worked in geriatric homes across Boston and learned how to present myself to two very different communities.”
The experience affected Levin deeply. “Outreach was not an extracurricular activity but a defining point in my career,” he says. “Through that service, I defined my voice as a musician.” Levin has amplified his outreach efforts. In 2015, together with his Great Necks compadres Borg and Rohde, Levin established Kithara Project, a nonprofit organization with a mission to improve the lives and opportunities of young people through the classical guitar. Kithara operates two guitar education programs in Boston and one each in Albuquerque and Mexico City.
“We provide everything that is needed for comprehensive, tuition-free guitar education: instruments, footstools, music stands, group and private lessons, and field trips to guitar society concerts,” says Levin. “For the students we serve, the guitar is a refuge from the difficult socioeconomic strains, the streets, drugs, and alcohol. Perhaps the most striking of the four programs is the one in Mexico City in a notoriously dangerous neighborhood. We have been fundraising for four years and are building a music school that will be completed this year. It’s been a lot of work, but every time I see those kids, it’s exactly the fuel I need to continue. It has been an absolute joy to share our love of guitar with these youngsters.”
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Add to Levin’s very packed schedule roles as professor at two New England universities, artistic director for the University of Rhode Island Guitar Festival and the Rhode Island Guitar Guild, and new father. He and his wife celebrated the arrival of their first son in 2021. With a baby at home, there’s even less sleep, but the kinetic and indefatigable Levin thrives on pushing himself to the limit. He jokes, “Now it just feels like I’m up all night and all day!”
What He Plays
Adam Levin plays a pair of guitars built by Massachusetts luthier Stephan Connor. The Paladina, built in 2010, has a spruce top with a hybrid lattice-and-fan bracing system, along with maple back and sides. Made two years earlier, Super Nova has a cedar soundboard and Brazilian rosewood back and sides. For this one, Connor created an experimental flying brace pattern. Levin played both guitars on 21st Century Spanish Guitar, Vol. 4. On Music from the Promised Land, he used the Paladina exclusively. Levin prefers hard-tension Augustine Regal strings on both instruments.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.