Acclaimed Jewish Pianist Equally Happy Playing Politics and Mozart

At 28, Igor Levit is already considered one of the world’s most outstanding pianists. But this does not stop him from regularly tweeting about hot-button political and social issues.

Russian-Jewish-German pianist Igor Levi sits and points to his right.
Christian Werner

“What kind of stupid argument is this? Did they really write this?” Pianist Igor Levit is upset and shocked. He scrolls worriedly as he searches for the article on his smartphone.

“They” are American-Jewish professors Steven Levitsky and Glen Weyl, who have just published an article in The Washington Post in which they explain why they believe it has become inevitable to boycott Israel. With Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories becoming ever more deeply entrenched, they see no other way to effect political change. If you love Israel, they claim, you have to join the international boycott movement.

It is a Monday, hours before the last in a series of concerts Levit was giving in Israel earlier this month. This is his first time here since he attained the worldwide stardom he enjoys today. Tomorrow he will be going back to the gray German winter, but right now he is sitting in the sun facing the vast gray facade of the Mann Auditorium, where he will be playing Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 3” with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra later that evening. At 28, international critics already consider him to be one of the world’s greatest pianists.

The waitress brings his salad, but Levit is still disturbed about the professors who turned their backs on Israel. “‘We are lifelong Zionists. Here’s why we’ve chosen to boycott Israel,’” he reads aloud, quoting the headline of the professors’ article.

“This is crazy. The last time I heard something like this was in that Marvel movie, ‘The Avengers 2.’ There’s an evil robot that wants to destroy the world because the world is destroying itself. So he plans to annihilate humanity in order to rebuild it.” He shakes his head resignedly. “I mean, that’s like saying, ‘I love you so I have to kill you.’”

Sacred piece of pop

Intensely interested in politics and society, Levit frequently expresses his opinions publicly. Indeed, hardly a day goes by without him tweeting several times.

But what does being a political artist mean when you play classical music? How does one juxtapose a worldview shaped by contemporary folk music and hip-hop (Levit loves American hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar) with pieces of music composed more than 200 years ago? “Of course, there was always political music,” he points out. “The political pieces of those days were called ‘The Marriage of Figaro,’ ‘The Abduction from the Seraglio’ and ‘Fidelio,’ among others.”

A close-up photograph of Russian-Jewish-German pianist Igor Levit.
Christian Werner

Germans approach Levit’s latest album as if it were a sacred piece of pop music. Released last month, it is rather unorthodox: Alongside variations by Bach and Beethoven, Levit recorded a powerful piece written in 1975 by American composer Frederic Rzewski: “The People United Will Never be Defeated!” is a set of 36 variations based on the ’60s Chilean liberation anthem “El pueblo unido.” For Levit, they have a single message – coming together, which he considers the aim of his own work.

While other artists have boycotted Israel, Levit says he finds performing here to be “thoroughly beautiful. People here just mean very, very much to me.” He only wishes he was able to speak Hebrew, so he could read the local newspapers. He says he feels safe in Israel because everybody seems to be speaking Russian. “I have the feeling people here speak more Russian than Hebrew,” he says with a smile.

Knowing when he had 'arrived' in Israel

When Levit played a few days earlier at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, a Russian woman came up to him and told him she knew who he was because, 10 years earlier, she had cheered him on when he was participating in the 2005 Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition, where he walked off with the silver medal and three other prizes. He says this was the moment he felt he had really arrived in Israel.

His own multilayered identity as a Jewish-Russian German troubles him far less than it seems to concern the German media. Levit and his family moved to Germany from Russia in 1995 when he was 8. They settled in Hanover, where the entire family still lives today.

Especially in recent times, Levit says, this “whole going-on about identity” has become really stressful – probably because the issue of belonging has become more relevant as hundreds of thousands of refugees pour into Germany. Journalists constantly ask him how he identifies himself. German? Russian? Jewish?

“How should I answer this question?” he asks. “Am I Russian? No. Probably not. But somehow, of course, yes. Am I German? Sure, but of course, not at all. What do they want to hear?” For a consummate artist who cares so passionately about bringing people together, the question seems altogether superfluous.