Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Populi: Ovations for Convocation with Bruce Levingston

Three words that usually aren’t met with excitement among students are “mandatory academic lecture.” We all remember the reception that Dr. Camille Paglia received at the Fall 2014 Convocation (cough cough), and there was a moment where it looked like we would be serving up more of the same infectious welcome at Spring 2015’s. But when 7:33 p.m. rolled around, the Yik Yak contingency of throat-clearing was absent. No spectacle was raised, nor any epidemic spread. In fact, all that could be heard was the final note in Debussy’s Clair de Lune, then a moment of silence broken only by the applause of an enraptured audience.

“Bruce is one of the loudest voices telling the Ole Miss student body that we can do profound things.” — Eloise Tyner

Bruce Levingston discusses the unique ability of music to convey emotion. Photos courtesy Phillip Waller
Bruce Levingston discusses the unique ability of music to convey emotion.
Photos courtesy Phillip Waller

Bruce Levingston, the acclaimed concert pianist and Honors College Artist in Residence, had done it, and he’d done it beautifully. Everyone present collectively realized they had just witnessed something quite special, and the two standing ovations that he, Benh Zeitlin, and Dan Nuxoll received underscored the feelings of awe that pervaded the room that night. Just as Levingston had explained music’s power to convey what cannot be said with words, no better appraisal of the performance can be given than the sound of three thousand hands earnestly clapping in unison.

Perhaps what was so remarkable about the performance was its elegantly simple message: art is undivided. The program was a compilation of musical scores and film, including the Dracula Suite, specially commissioned for Levingston and written by Philip Glass, and clips from the Cannes Festival Award-winning film Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Zeitlin, and funded and screened by director Nuxoll’s organization, Rooftop Films—an internationally acclaimed film festival based in New York. Levingston, Nuxoll, and Zeitlin demonstrated to audience members the richness that film and music lend to one another, and more broadly, the importance of collaboration in artistic expression. Indeed, Levingston even acknowledged the collaborative nature of the relationship between audience and pianist: “I need you all to be there as an audience listening to my music. Without you, I cannot give a performance. You are part of the performance!”

Based on student impressions of the program, it appears that not only were Honors scholars willing participants in the performance, but eager ones at that. Joe Bell, one of the 2015 recipients of the Barksdale Award and a sophomore international studies, Spanish, and public policy major, said of the program, “For me I found it to be the perfect convocation and an ideal trio of artists because they illustrated the beauty and grace of following one’s passion in life….The work of those three engenders so many of the values of the Honors College as we strive to not only find personal success, but more importantly to lead impactful lives full of joy and passion.”

Bruce Levingston playing Debussy's Clair de Lune at the opening of Convocation.
Bruce Levingston playing Debussy’s Clair de Lune at the opening of Convocation.

Will Pate, a freshman music major, was particularly impressed with the artistic and technical skill of Levingston’s performance. “When he plays, it is as if the music originates somewhere inside him and radiates through his whole body before he transfers it to the keys of the piano. When he played with the videos at convocation, he made sure that each note expressed exactly what was happening in the video at exactly the right time. I think it is this very careful, yet passionate approach draws his audience members to the edge of their seats and makes them fall in love with his performances. He is truly talented in creating music that matches perfectly to emotional experiences that everyone can relate to.”

Not only were students impressed with the program, but many thought it was the best convocation they had seen to date. Senior psychology major, Katie Kelly, appreciated the opportunity the performance offered students to break to consider artistic expression amidst a busy class schedule: “Speaking as a senior working on her thesis, it was the best convocation I have ever been to, because it gave me a chance to put my worries on hold and relax a little bit.” Ray Brown, a freshman mechanical engineering and art major, echoed her sentiments: “The screening of The Beasts of the Southern Wild, along with Mr. Levingston’s performance and the Q & A all came together to make this spring’s convocation a complete success.”

“In his role in Artist in Residence, Mr. Levingston continuously exposes students to artists and intellects that embody art at its highest levels…. Mr. Levingston has a way of awakening students to the important issues, teaching them how to discuss them and find creative solutions throughout something that shone through in this convocation—the art of collaboration.” — Jon Luke Watts

The spirit of collaboration that shone through during Levingston’s performances made for a convocation to remember, though it’s worth noting that a collaborative spirit is something Levingston embodies in many areas of his life—including the classroom. He teaches a Conversations Course in the Honors College, entitled, “The Art of Conversation”, where the focus of the course is analyzing different types of discourse.

Eloise Tyner, a sophomore public policy and Arabic major enrolled in the class, admires Levingston’s perspective of student potential and the spirit of his teaching: “Mississippi kids have always been told that we are dumb. We are barefoot, ignorant, simple ‘folk.’ We are the bottom of the stack, and we will never amount to anything outside of our own little world. This is what we are told day after day and year after year. The power of expectations are profound. When I came to Ole Miss, I was told otherwise. Bruce is one of the loudest voices telling the Ole Miss student body that we can do profound things. The way he interacts with students is simply inspiring. Every time I leave our conversations class, I feel a little lighter and a little stronger. He makes me feel invigorated and inspired.”

Jon Luke Watts, a sophomore public policy and philosophy major, praised Levingston for his impact on the intellectual and artistic culture at Ole Miss: “In his role in Artist in Residence, Mr. Levingston continuously exposes students to artists and intellects that embody art at its highest levels. That said, his impact on this campus extends far beyond that. Mr. Levingston has a way of awakening students to the important issues, teaching them how to discuss them and find creative solutions throughout something that shone through in this convocation—the art of collaboration.”

Claudia Salcedo, a junior vocal music education major, attested to the importance of Levingston’s presence in the Honors College to arts and non-arts students alike: “Throughout my time here, I have always felt like trying to be a music major while remaining in the Honors College was a constant battle. Finally, music and honors came together to create a phenomenal evening. Though I am a musician and the convocation appealed to me, I have heard from my fellow HoCo members about how great the night was for them also. I think this was by far the best convocation we have had during my time here.”

Students engage with Levingston, Zeitlin and Nuxoll in a Q & A after the performance.
Students engage with Levingston, Zeitlin and Nuxoll in a Q & A after the performance.

On all accounts, Levingston’s performance transcended the dreaded convocation “mandatory academic lecture” stereotype and became a true collaborative effort on the parts of all present. Students and faculty alike engaged in an exercise of the mind and body, finding moments of beauty, hilarity, seduction, and darkness in the notes and images that filled the Ford Center that night. In just a few hours, music and film had become languages of emotion and power that Levingston, Nuxoll and Zeitlin helped translate for audience members, and it was nothing short of a magical experience.

Students have come to recognize, however, that the piano bench is only one of the many seats that Levingston is now taking at the Ole Miss table. He is a teacher, Honors Scholar, intellect, philanthropist, and more, and he actively challenges the assumption that we can only be known by one name. This gets to the heart of the message of Levingston’s convocation—collaboration.

All of us are undivided artists, poets, doctors, dentists, philosophers, and mechanical engineers that are also sky-divers, potters, football players, sorority sisters, men, women, and children. We are, in a sense, all collaborations—beautiful composite mixtures of the various roles that we play and live. To any audience member at convocation, it was clear that Levingston did not shed any one of his roles when he sat down at the piano bench, and we were challenged as audience members to do the same. I think many of us rose to the occasion, based on what transpired that evening, and that is perhaps the best proof of Levingston’s success as Artist in Residence that can be given.


Populi_LogoEleanor Anthony is an editor of Populi magazine, a bi-weekly. student-run publication for the Ole Miss campus sponsored by the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. She can be reached at ecanthon@go.olemiss.edu. Follow Populi on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

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