By GAUTAMA MEHTA
Walter Levin, an internationally renowned violinist who spent the last years of his life at Hyde Park’s Montgomery Place retirement community, died on Friday, August 4, at the age of 92.
Levin was a founding member and first violinist of the LaSalle Quartet, one of the world’s preeminent string quartets during the four decades it was active, from 1947 to 1987. After the quartet’s dissolution, Levin worked as a teacher and mentor to generations of chamber ensembles and musicians.
Levin was born in Germany in 1924 and grew up in Berlin. “His father was one of those German Jews who misread the situation, and so they stayed in Berlin till well after the Kristallnacht,” said Walter’s son Thomas Levin, a media theorist and professor of German at Princeton University.
Thomas explained that the family stayed so long because his grandfather was “convinced that, since he had a bullet wound in his back from the First World War, he was a German patriot,” and would be respected as such.
Finally, in 1938, Thomas said, “they fled fascism and were able to get out, miraculously, to Palestine,” where Walter lived until 1946, when he moved to New York City to study at the Juilliard School of Music.
He founded the LaSalle Quartet while at Juilliard. The ensemble, which took its name from a street in New York, eventually became a quartet in residence at the University of Cincinnati after a stint at Colorado College.
It was also in New York that he met the woman he would spend his life with, a Bulgarian pianist named Evi Markov. David Levin, the younger of their sons and a professor of Germanic Studies, film, and theater at the University of Chicago, explained that Evi, who had been a child prodigy, “decided that she would give up her career in order to be the business manager for my father’s quartet.”
Like Walter, Evi Levin is a European Jew who was forced to flee her country—in her case, Bulgaria—due to the the rise of fascism. Her journey to the United States was more harrowing than Walter’s, and involved traveling across Europe, in the process learning a multitude of languages. This proved useful when, as the manager of an ensemble that regularly toured around Europe, she was able to personally maintain the quartet’s correspondence with people of varying nationalities across the continent.
The Levins were based in Cincinnati for much of their lives, and raised their children there. His sons described his parenting style as similar to his teaching style: aloof and highly demanding. “My dad was a pretty fearsome guy. It’s not like he relaxed his standards when it came to home life,” said David.
“My father was a man whose first and unequivocal commitment was to his music, from early on. That didn’t change when children arrived,” said Thomas. “But it also meant that a certain seriousness of engagement was a model that both my brother and I had. We didn’t take meals with our father until much later, when we were capable of having conversation at the dinner table.”
“The model for us was of a life of non-alienated labor,” said Thomas. “I don’t care what you do, just do it extremely well,” he says his father told him. “Dilettantism was not an option.”
“Music was a continuous presence in our house,” said Thomas. And never in the background: “Listening to music meant discussing music.” In the Levin household, music was “an object of critical attention.”
“That idea, that aesthetic practice needs to be taken enormously seriously, that’s something that’s marked me for my life,” said Thomas, who credits his father’s influence for the fact that both he and his brothers went on to become academics. David contests this causal link, but does not deny the influence his father’s intellectual temperament and rigorous standards exerted upon the two brothers.
David, unlike his brother, went on to professionally engage with music in his academic career, although from a more theoretical perspective than that of his father; he has written about opera, and served as a dramaturg for opera and ballet performances.
David said of his father’s importance to contemporary classical music, “The LaSalle Quartet commissioned works that—while at the time they were necessarily unknown—have in the meantime emerged as very important works in 20th century chamber music,” listing the prominent composers who wrote for the ensemble.
In particular, the LaSalle Quartet was noted for its engagement with the international avant-garde (Walter was an acquaintance of both Igor Stravinsky and John Cage, whom he invited to lecture in Cincinnati), as well as its interpretations of the Second Viennese School, a group of composers which included Arnold Schoenberg.
After the dissolution of the quartet, Levin devoted his life to teaching. David described his father’s teaching style as “old school,” in the sense that “he demanded interpretive rigor.”
“He had no patience for people who just played—or I guess in America we would say people who just played from the heart. He wasn’t that kind of guy,” said David of his father, whose list of prominent pupils includes James Levine, a former music director of the Metropolitan Opera and the Ravinia Festival.
“All the major quartet ensembles to this day, the bulk of them have been trained by him,” said Thomas.
Walter and Evi lived a “somewhat nomadic existence,” said David. They traveled across Europe for years, as Walter held professorships in Basel, Madrid, Lubeck, Paris and elsewhere, but they retained Cincinnati as a base to return to.
Their wandering came to an end in 2010, when an injury in Basel brought upon the onset of Walter’s dementia. The couple relocated to Hyde Park in order to be close to David, who had been a professor at the University of Chicago since 1998.
David said that in Walter’s old age, an “amazing shift” occurred in his personality. “My dad had been ferocious all his life, so what came out was a residual sweetness,” said David. It was “a kind of sweetness that, to anybody who knew him, was utterly astonishing.”
“He was sweet and happy and accommodating,” said David. “Anything my mom wanted to do was great.” Thomas described his father in his last years as “a gentle old man.”
Both of their sons sang the praises of Montgomery Place, the retirement community on South Shore Drive at which their parents made their home. A 2015 two-part profile in the Chicago Sun-Times by Stefano Esposito titled “Evi and Walter” movingly described the couple’s life there.
“It’s just been fantastic,” said Thomas. “I wish it for all of us, to be in a place where you’re surrounded by all kinds of really smart interesting professionals of all sorts. Musicians, artists, academics, doctors, lawyers, professionals, a lot of scientists. Right on the lake.”
David said his parents were initially “duly skeptical, because they wanted to maintain their independence,” but once they saw the place, “they were as impressed as we are.”
“As sad as I am that he’s gone, I think I could not have imagined a way for him to spend these last years that would be nicer. They were together, they had an autonomous life,” said Thomas.
Evi continues to enjoy living at Montgomery Place, David said. “There’s not a week that goes by where she doesn’t say, ‘Oh my god, it’s so amazing that we found this place.’”
And it allowed Walter to keep doing what he loved and did best: Thomas said his father coached an amateur music ensemble of his fellow retirees at Montgomery Place.