Welcome to the personal website of conductor Levi Hammer, a musician of remarkable range and versatility who is invigorating the world of classical music today.   Here you can follow Levi's diverse activities, learn about his life, read the latest written by and about him, and stay in touch with him through the web!

Levi on Twitter


On Levi's Desk

Levi's Latest

In this, my third production of Porgy and Bess, I’m ever more fascinated with Gershwin’s ability to incorporate modernism and still speak in his own inimitable musical style. In this sense, Gershwin is a lot like Mozart: they both appeared in the world as fully formed masters, and they both assimilated all that they encountered. Mozart absorbed every foreign style in his early international travels. Gershwin did the same, except his influences were Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg, Debussy, Ravel, and of course the hotbed of Tin Pan Alley where he grew up. Also like Mozart, Gershwin died tragically young. Porgy, his last major work, should just be the beginning of his maturity, and it boggles the mind to imagine the decades of masterpieces that humanity lost due to the early deaths of both Gershwin and Mozart. July 1, 2019

Our Ariadne auf Naxos is well underway. It’s so zany and whacky in one moment, so profound and sublime the next. Ariadne is simultaneously an homage to and a parody of 18th century opera, not unlike The Rake’s Progress. But unlike Stravinsky’s “severely controlled passion,” Strauss never holds back: his aesthetic fully surrenders to passion. June 24, 2019

Today is my debut conducting the Cincinnati Symphony. I’m elated to work with the fine musicians I’ve come to know from my time at CCM and with Cincinnati Opera. June 9, 2019

Am back at Cincinnati Opera this summer as Resident Conductor. My first duty: accompanying the secco recitativo for this absolute dream cast of The Marriage of Figaro. This is my eighth Mozart opera, and it’s strange that this, the most produced of them all, happens to be the last I’ve gotten to. I’m often asked if I have a favorite piece. It’s an impossible question, BUT (in the realm of opera anyway) if I had to choose just one, it would have to be Figaro. It is - in a word - perfect, the absolute pinnacle of what humanity can achieve in the realm of art. May 26, 2019

I’m wrapping up two weeks with my Equilibrium family and our indefatigable big sister and mentor extraordinaire Barbara Hannigan. After having shelved The Rake’s Progress for six months, I came back to it feeling that I really own the piece. Barbara had the Munich Philharmonic playing like gods, and I joined them at the harpsichord. May 17, 2019

I'm a big fan of history books that cast a wide net, giving a long view of a subject and providing a framework for understanding shorter periods in the context of larger ones.  That's exactly what James Hawes does in his The Shortest History of Germany.  A fun read that frames modern Germany in the context of the last 2000 or so years.  How I would love to have seen the Romans in Mainz and Wiesbaden, where I now live! April 15, 2019

It’s always a pleasure to work on Mozart, especially his last opera, La Clemenza di Tito, which harkens back to an older opera seria style. It’s Herr Mozart with his wig and formal attire, rather than puckish Wolfgang with his comedic antics and raging hormones. April 1, 2019

I’m studying the poetry of Rellstab, Heine and Seidl as I prepare Schubert’s Schwanengesang. This is the second installment in the “cycle of cycles” that Ben Russell and I are performing. Because it wasn’t actually composed as a cycle, Schwanengesang feels very different than Die Schöne Müllerin (though the Heine settings do hold together as a mini-cycle.) This is incredibly modern Schubert, with sometimes Wagnerian weightiness and drama, Der Atlas and Der Doppelgänger in particular. Die Taubenpost is elegiac - you hear Schubert’s longing, his honesty, his purity, his sincerity. I adore this music. March 18, 2019

Intense work on our revival of Tannhäuser. I’ve now been intimately involved with this opera for about two years, and during rehearsals this week I’ve been reflecting on how my understanding of the piece has evolved. After initially falling in love with it, my enthusiasm waned and I actually found myself getting annoyed with old Wagner. This was in part because of the struggle to master such a big chunk of music. It was good to be away from it for a while, and now I’ve come back to Tannhäuser with renewed appreciation - especially after having done Holländer (Dutchman) and Meistersinger in the meantime. Wagner’s revision (for the Paris version) of the Venusberg bacchanal scene is so anachronistic! - like erotic music from Tristan dropped into the relatively tame (harmonically anyway) style. But how wonderfully anachronistic it is! And my visit to the Wartburg (the actual castle where the opera takes place) made the medieval events of the opera feel all the more real for me. March 3, 2019

Saw the film Colette and I’m absolutely inspired by this woman’s fearless life-journey. I first encountered Colette as the librettist of my all time favorite opera, Ravel’s L'Enfant et les Sortilèges, and after seeing this film I now want to read more of her work. Thomas Adès’s beautiful film score blended perfectly with the Belle Époque atmosphere of the film. February 18, 2019

I first heard Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle conducted by Simon Rattle in Berlin in 2017, and I have to admit that was perplexed by it. It’s a piece that pays rich dividends after careful study. We start rehearsals for it this afternoon, and I’m feeling that familiar, nervous excitement of doing a challenging masterpiece for the first time. I’m hoping this production will illuminate the strange psychology of the work. In my preparation I’ve been challenged by and have come to love Bluebeard’s tremendous melodic and harmonic wealth: Bartok’s own weird expressionism, a Hungarian aesthetic very different from the contemporaneous Viennese expressionism to which I feel so close. I had deluded myself into thinking that I could learn some of the Hungarian text, but I quickly gave up decided I would only have time to learn the vocal parts on solfege syllables. I’ll save Hungarian for my next life… February 11, 2019

For some reason I’ve done a lot of Kurt Weill’s music, and it’s interesting to revisit Die Sieben Todsünden (The Seven Deadly Sins,) which I conducted at the Castleton Festival. Most Europeans consider Weill’s early German period to have borne his strongest creative efforts, but I agree with Stephen Sondheim, who said that Weill’s best work was in America, after he had assimilated Gershwin’s language and the Broadway style. When the Sins are done with great creativity and imagination, they’re thrilling. But Weill’s non-functional harmony (like Hindemith’s) hasn’t aged well - to my ears anyway!  January 28, 2019

Rehearsals for our production of Candide are in full swing. I’ve loved this music since I was a kid, and I’m happy now to properly learn it. Bernstein was my childhood obsession, and my love of his work has been tempered as I’ve grown up. I love Bernstein’s music most when he’s not trying to be too serious. It might be eclectic; it might be a pastiche; it might have its weak points; but Candide is nevertheless FUN, and it’s Lenny at his best.  January 14, 2019

Hänsel und Gretel was a thrill, and I’ll conduct one more performance tomorrow, with a sold-out Christmas audience. It’s so gratifying to be a part of this labor of love. The joy of the singers, the orchestral musicians and the audience is palpable. December 24, 2018

In the world of opera, singers are often expected to “jump in” - this is the term for stepping into an already-running production with little or no rehearsal. I’m getting ready to jump into Hänsel und Gretel, so that my first time every conducting the piece will be in performance. I’m memorizing the libretto and devising the musical pace of the drama. And I’m committing the orchestration to heart as much as possible so that I’m able to connect with both the stage and the musicians in the orchestra pit. I have to admit, I feel a heavy weight on my shoulders. December 10, 2018

Leaving Paris inspired and full of gratitude for new friends and above all Barbara Hannigan for our Equilibrium Artists workshop on Stravinsky‘s The Rake‘s Progress. We’ll continue with the Munich Philharmonic in May! December 3, 2018

I’ve made a list of all the quotations/references/allusions in The Rake’s Progress. Lot’s of clever allusions to Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni, as well as Bach, Monteverdi and (I think) Tchaikovsky. I feel like I can see Stravinsky impishly winking at me, as if to say, “Oh no, that’s not Mozart’s idea, that’s my own!” November 19, 2018

Themes of my “Hammer Dialogue” on The Rake’s Progress: 1.) Everything is reactionary, 2.) The basic aesthetic of the Rake is “severely controlled passion,” and 3.) There is a spectrum of expression that needs to be properly balanced to fulfill Stravinsky’s “severely controlled passion.” November 12, 2018

I’m devoting every spare moment to preparing The Rake’s Progress for Barbara Hannigan’s inaugural Equilibrium Young Artists project in Paris. I’ll also deliver a “Hammer Dialogue” (so designated by Barbara herself!) on the Rake. November 1, 2018

In the repertory system, opera revivals are sometimes prepared VERY rapidly. I re-learned all of Eugene Onegin only to attend one rehearsal of it! Tchaikovsky is certainly at his best on stage rather than in the purely symphonic sphere. October 15, 2018

The Meistersinger premiere is behind us and I’m now on to my next show, My Fair Lady…you couldn’t get further away from Wagner! October 1, 2018

Back in Germany and in the vast throes of the Meistersinger. Our production is hilarious!…yes, Wagner could be funny. I think it was Michael Tilson Thomas who said that the Meistersinger is a comedy by someone with no sense of humor, and yet this production - which takes place in a nursing home (yes, all the kleine Meister are elderly residents) makes Wagner actually funny! September 3, 2018

It was a transcendent experience to hear Yo-Yo Ma play the complete Bach cello suites at Blossom last night. I’ve long had a similar project brewing in the back of my mind, and Yo-Yo fueled my imagination for my future educational initiative on Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. August 13, 2018

Saw “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” the empowering film about the life work of Fred Rogers. His legacy is especially important for our particular moment in history. His kindness is an example for us all…and what a fine musician he was! It’s telling that Yo-Yo Ma considers the Fred Rogers Legacy Award his greatest honor. July 30, 2018

Back again in the States for some much needed rest. I’ve already been in Ohio, Missouri, Arizona and California. Now that I’ve recovered from the season, I’m back at my desk working on my Schoenberg-Pelleas project. I’ve reached a halfway point, and I now need to set it aside again to focus on the upcoming season - especially Wagner and Stravinsky. July 23, 2018

The season is wrapping up - appropriately for me - with Wagner. Tannhäuser is the final performance of the season. It’s been a season with challenges, but one grows through challenges. For me, no other composer is more challenging - and fulfilling - than Wagner. I’m so grateful to get to spend so much time with his music. June 25, 2018

In the Meistersinger the people are real - not gods. They’re as real to me as if I knew them. Hans Sachs is a man who longs for love again, but renounces it. The unfulfilled love between Sachs and Eva is so real. Also particularly real in our production is the ever-present grief Sachs feels for his late wife. June 11, 2018

One of the delights of living and working in Germany is the abundance of Wagner. You just can’t get this much Wagner in the States. We’re doing a pre-rehearsal period for next season now and I’m beginning to climb the mountain that is the Meistersinger. May 28, 2018

Mozart notated the opening of Don Giovanni differently in his personal catalogue of his own musical works than he did in the actual opera. Can it be that the low notes are not in fact supposed to be held longer than the treble? I think there’s a good case to be made for this. The long bass notes (which every conductor holds even longer than actually indicated) have always sounded anachronistic to me…like it’s Mahler in Vienna in 1900 rather than Mozart in Prague in 1787. May 7, 2018

Saw Janáček’s Katya Kabanova. I adore this music: moving, dramatic, structured, such real human weakness in the story. April 23, 2018

Don Giovanni! I never tire of studying Mozart. This is my second production of DG, and my first in the original Italian. (The first was in German, which didn’t bother me - Goethe only ever heard DG in German after all!) But it feels much better to digest every beautiful syllable of Da Ponte. Confession: I can’t stand Ottavio’s beloved aria “Dalla sua Pace.” It’s always sung too slow - as if it were a lugubrious song of Hugo Wolf! April 16, 2018

One can’t avoid thinking about Debussy and Fauré when working on Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande. It can be hard to wrap one’s head around these giant pieces… Which reminds me that the best way to get to know composers is through their songs and piano music. You have to know the smaller canvases in order to understand the vast landscapes of symphonies and operas. Mahler is the perfect example: you can’t really understand his symphonies without knowing his songs. April 2, 2018

Am between productions at the moment, so I’m using this time to work on a long-term project, arranging Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande for chamber orchestra. Schoenberg’s own arrangement of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde is an obvious model. I have to learn the Finale music notation software as well as do the actual work of arranging this piece. This will be a very long-term project. Give me a year and I’ll show you the results of my laborious efforts! March 19, 2018

More Wagner! Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman.) This was the first opera Wagner considered part of his official canon. Having just done Tannhäuser (the second opera in the canon,) I’m astounded at how quickly he evolved. Am having a good laugh at some of the text. March 5, 2018

Another production of Die Zauberflöte. Am playing a real “Papageno Glockenspiel” in the pit! February 19, 2018

Revisiting Così fan tutte for our revival here. I will never tire of this delightful piece. Astounding how Mozart and Da Ponte could speak to and for all humanity (and all genders!) February 5, 2018

Die Schöne Müllerin tonight! Benjamin Russell sings it dramatically. He captures all the colors of the lovesick protagonist, and compels me to match his imagination in the accompaniment. It’s fun to give each verse of the strophic songs its own character. January 22, 2018

Preparing Die Schöne Müllerin. One can feel German Romanticism in the poetry of Müller and Schubert composed perfectly youthful music to it. January 1, 2018

Christmas in Morocco! December 25, 2017

I’m just loving Bryan Magee’s “The Tristan Chord.” He makes perceptive comparisons between Wagner and Shakespeare. In Shakespeare characters are unique beings; in Wagner they’re universal beings, various characters are multifarious aspects of a single personality - of what it is to be a human being. In Shakespeare there are individuals; in Wagner there is humanity. In Shakespeare there are real people; in Wagner there are gods. In Shakespeare there’s psychological insight into individuals; in Wagner, psychological insight into the human condition. In Shakespeare works, Shakespeare himself is invisible; in Wagner, Wagner himself is an omnipresent authorial presence - there is only one individual, and that is Wagner. December 18, 2017

Hänsel und Gretel is seldom mounted in the States, but like the Magic Flute, it’s done in virtually everything theater in Germany, every year around Christmastime. I’ve had fun learning it, and I can smell the gingerbread in Humperdinck’s harmonies. I want to see a production where the witch and the mother are played by the same singer. After all, the mother is pretty evil in sending the kids into the haunted woods! December 11, 2017

Just learned the wonderful saying “Bach sei euer täglich’ Brot” (May Bach be your daily bread) from my wonderful colleague Christina Domnick. I spend a few minutes with Bach every single day and I never travel without my Well Tempered Clavier. December 4, 2017

I played the little celesta part in Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony. I wasn’t familiar with this symphony, and it’s full of repressed anguish and insider jokes and quotations, like the appearance of the William Tell gallop. The concert was beautifully conducted by an old friend, Christoph Altstaedt. November 27, 2017

Sometimes I need a break from heavy reading. So I’m reading Donna Leon’s “Death at La Fenice” for probably the third time. Leon knows how to write a good mystery novel, and it’s especially fun when the conductor gets murdered! It’s set in Venice and the city itself is almost a character. You can practically smell the lagoon. November 20, 2017

I can’t get enough Wagner! Am especially intrigued Bryan Magee’s book, The Tristan Chord. Chapter 5 on Wagner’s misleading reputation is especially illuminating. November 13, 2017

Culture is everywhere in Germany. I found this street named for Wolfram von Eschenbach, a historical figure who shows up in both Tannhäuser and Die Meistersinger. November 6, 2017

It has been such fun learning about Wagner’s time in Wiesbaden. I often run down to the Rhine and pass by this little medieval castle, the Mosburg. Wagner had fantasies of renovating and moving into it. October 23, 2017

I just read this wonderful old New Yorker article on about the teenage Susan Sontag calling up and visiting Thomas Mann at his house in California. What a beautiful writer she was, and what charming precociousness! October 23, 2017

I’ve already read Kafka’s three novels and many of the short stories in English, but now, as I finish Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis,) I’m better understanding the word “Kafkaesque,” the anguish of which you can already sense in his heartbreaking letter to his father. October 16, 2017

Reading Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis) in German. It can be tough-going, but the brevity of the novella makes it manageable. I’ve even memorized the first sentence! “Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheueren Ungeziefer verwandelt.” It’s a perfect first sentence, and a perfect example of German sentence structure. The meaning can be easily conveyed in English, but the language itself - its inner logic - is as expressive as the ideas being expressed. October 9, 2017

Am continuing to force myself to read in German. One of the disadvantages of Germans speaking English so well is that it’s tempting to slip into English when I don’t know how to express myself in German. So I have a personal policy to never speak English with a native German speaker. There are a few exceptions, like my lovely colleague the mezzo-soprano Silvia Hauer, who speaks English at least as well as I do! October 2, 2017

Reading Biedermann und die Brandstifter, a play by Max Frisch in preparation for seeing the play at my theater. Not easy to read in German, but good for me! September 25, 2017

I’ve discovered that Brahms and Wagner (and Reger, but who cares about him?) spent significant time in Wiesbaden and its environs. I rang at the door of the house where Brahms composed his Third Symphony, with its unfamiliar subtitle, Die Wiesbadener Symphonie! September 18, 2017

Tannhäuser is in full swing and I’m basking in this glorious music. September 11, 2017

Some reflections on my summer in America and my beloved why-oh-why Ohio. August 28, 2017

Working on the world premiere of Schönerland by Søren Nils Eichberg. August 21, 2017

Back in Germany. Settling into Wiesbaden and adjusting to a new opera house. So much to do, especially learning Tannhäuser…such glorious music! On the way back here I visited the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and found this little drawing Warhol did of The Magic Flute. August 14, 2017

Tannhäuser! I love love love Wagner, but why oh why does his text have to be so stilted? - especially for a non-native German speaker! I’m attempting to get a handle on the libretto by making a personal glossary of all the weird Wagnerian text/vocabulary. August 7, 2017

After weeks with it, I’m still barely scratching the surface of Schoenberg’s Pelleas. What a tremendous contrast to Debussy and Fauré! I love seeing how different composers treat the same subject matter. You learn so much about expressive style and musical vocabulary. It’s most clear when multiple composers set the same text, like Debussy/Fauré/Hahn settings of the same Verlaine poems. July 31, 2017

Back with family in Arizona. Enjoying the dry heat and clearing my mind! July 17, 2017

Researching Schoenberg’s (not Debussy’s nor Fauré’s!) Pelleas und Melisande. A musician is sometimes also a musicological detective. In this case, I’m reading the extensive appendix (in German, argh!) of the Pelleas volume of Schoenberg’s complete works. Fortunately the publication history of this piece isn’t too complicated and the good ol’ Dover score is perfectly acceptable. July 2, 2017

Back in the States for the summer. Cincinnati has become one of my many homes and this certainly feels like a homecoming at Cincinnati Opera with Barrie Kosky’s production of Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute.) I didn’t have as much time to study, but fortunately I learned the (conductorially - is that a word?) tricky Sprecherszene a few years ago. It goes to show that learning music slowly and methodically pays off in the long run! June 19, 2017

After a fabulous season at the Komische Oper Berlin, I’ve taken a position at the Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden, where I’ll have more so-called Dirigierverpflichtungen (conducting duties). I’ll miss the cutting-edge Komische Oper and my dear friends and colleagues in Berlin, but I’m looking forward to the more traditional repertoire (Wagner/Verdi/Mozart) in Wiesbaden. Here’s a summary of my year in Berlin. June 5, 2017