URI guitar professor Adam Levin tops Billboard’s Traditional Classical chart – again

New release is finale of 15-year ‘21st Century Spanish Guitar’ project

KINGSTON, R.I. – Sept. 21, 2021 – A veteran of numerous albums, classical guitarist Adam Levin had never had the pleasure of seeing one of his recordings reach the Billboard charts. Now, in the span of 10 weeks, he’s done it twice – landing the top spot with two different albums.

In June, “Music From the Promised Land,” his debut album with the mandolin and guitar chamber group Duo Mantar, reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Traditional Classical Albums rankings. This time it’s his solo work, “21st Century Spanish Guitar, Volume 4,” which topped the chart the week of Sept. 4 – sharing space on a list with such big names as composer John Williams, violinist Hilary Hahn, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and pianist Natalie Zhu.

“I’m definitely in good company. It’s humbling to know that I’m surrounded by such powerhouse superstars, many of whom have influenced a generation or more of younger musicians,” said Levin, a teacher of classical guitar at the University of Rhode Island. “I hope that my ascent to No. 1 on the Billboard charts will have some positive impact on the classical guitar world and its future trajectory, especially as it pertains to the promotion and dissemination of new music.

“I’m overjoyed about these two album successes because I’ve invested the last 15 years in expanding the repertoire for classical guitar,” he added, “whether it’s as a soloist or with any one of my chamber music groups, including Duo Mantar, Duo Sonidos, or The Great Necks Guitar Trio.”

“21st Century Spanish Guitar, Volume 4,” released Aug. 20 by Frameworks Records, is the culmination of 15 years of researching, courting composers to write for the guitar, commissioning, and recording a repertoire that spans four generations of new Spanish composers. The four volumes include more than 30 commissioned works, almost all of which have never been previously recorded.

“It really answers the critical question: What comes next in the long line of Spanish composition,” said Levin. “We have a well-spring of original compositions and transcriptions by Joaquín Rodrigo, Manuel de Falla, Isaac Albéniz, Enrique Granados, Joaquín Turina, among others – pillars of Spanish composition who established the 20th-century classical Spanish sound. I grew up studying this music, performing it as a young kid, and then in my mid-20s, I asked myself what does the future hold for Spanish classical music.”

Levin, a protégé of virtuoso Eliot Fisk at the New England Conservatory, started looking for an answer as a Fulbright Scholar in Madrid, Spain, in 2008, proposing to study and perform Spanish music written from the 20th and 21st centuries. He quickly realized that he had landed upon a “new Spanish renaissance in composition,” he said. The last four generations of Spanish composers were creating music as unique and vital as their storied ancestors.

“Upon arriving in Madrid and downloading hundreds of dollars of music from iTunes, I realized the music of Spain was far more varied, diverse, complex, layered and cosmopolitan than I had previously imagined,” he said. “The music had an unmistakable Spanish DNA, but composers were no longer only searching for the quintessential Spanish sound, but cross-pollinating with music of other cultures, genres, and centuries of themes, forms and compositional styles.”

Other than Gabriel Estarellas – Levin’s Fulbright mentor and professor of guitar at the Real Conservatorio Superior de Música de Madrid – no one was championing this music. So, Levin took on the mission himself.

Since 2008, Levin has commissioned nearly 40 new chamber and solo pieces by four generations of Spanish composers, all of which have appeared in the “21st Century Spanish Guitar” series or on other recordings. Some of the composers are descendants of legends – such as José Luis Turina, grandson of Joaquín Turina. The project has been backed not only by a Fulbright scholarship, but also a Kate Neal Kinley Memorial Fellowship, the Program for Cultural Cooperation and several private patrons.

The final volume in the series – a double CD set recorded in a converted masonic temple in Roslindale, Massachusetts, with engineer John Weston, and in Badajoz, Spain, with engineer Luis del Toro – includes pieces from master composer Leonardo Balada, who was born in 1933; his disciple Jorge Muñiz, born more than 40 years later, and composers in the years between. The 11 tracks range in style from the avant-garde in José Luis Turina’s “Arboretum,” to the American bluegrass-flavor of Muñiz’s three-part “Portraits from the Heartland,” to Sephardic tradition in Broton’s “Sonata Sefardita.”

Among the highlights is the first-ever recording of Cuban-Spanish composer Eduardo Morales-Caso’s electrifying “Concierto de La Herradura,” in which Levin is backed by the Orchestra of Extremadura under the baton of Álvaro Albiach. “With its vibrant and personal voice, the concerto is riveting,” said Levin. “Morale-Caso has a natural understanding of the guitar and writes music in a way that places him among the finest composers to have written for the instrument.”

Levin credits Fisk for lighting the fire under him to study in Spain, while also crediting Estarellas with being a guiding force and liaison to numerous renowned Spanish composers, including the late Antón García Abril and Cristóbal Halffter. But the most enriching and inspiring moments came working alongside these living classical composers.

“Working with composers is a unique and inspiring experience and provides us with the critical intel necessary to give the most convincing interpretation possible,” he said. “We don’t have the luxury to speak with Bach, Scarlatti, Sor, Albeníz or De Falla, or any of the number of great composers of the past. For these composers, we have to rely on secondary and tertiary sources to interpret their work.” 

Along with being a touring performer and music advocate, Levin is a teacher at URI and the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He is also the co-founder of Kithara Project (www.kitharaproject.org), whose mission is to improve the lives of children and youth through classical guitar.

The Kithara Project hosts four year-round tuition-free, community-based guitar programs in Boston, Albuquerque and Mexico City. It is currently completing a capital campaign and has started construction on a music school in the community of Yuguelito in Mexico City. Construction is expected to be completed by end of the year.

Through his now 12 albums, his goal has been to expand in the classical repertoire for future guitarists.

“This project is all in vain if I can’t make the connection to the next generation of guitarists. For my students, I aim to bridge the sounds and traditions of old-world Spanish music with the Spanish compositional trends of today,” he said.

“My pedagogy is infused with sensitivity, adaptability, flexibility and openness to music and musical forms across cultures and the history of music,” he added. “With this philosophy in mind, we have the capacity to listen to music in a different way, and make more informed and authentic interpretations. Being a musician brings with it the responsibility to push boundaries and walk the tight-rope. Exploring new music is one of those tight-rope acts and crossing it together will undoubtedly usher us into a new frontier.”