Artistic Director of the Milken Archive since 1993, Neil W. Levin has devoted his professional and academic life to the scholarly study of the music of Jewish experience from historical, musicological, ethnological, Judaic, and cross-cultural perspectives. While he has lectured, written, and taught courses on a diverse array of Jewish and Judaically related musical subjects spanning a broad spectrum of traditions, his particular areas of focus embrace comparative considerations of eastern and western spheres of Ashkenazi Jewry in terms of their sacred, secular art, theatrical, and folk music; and the musical creativity and life of American Jewry. As a professor of Jewish music on the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York since 1982, he teaches graduate courses on the history, development, and repertoire of synagogue music, cantorial art, Yiddish and Hebrew folksong, the music of modern Israel, and music of American Jewish experience. He is recognized as one of the leading authorities in the field of Jewish music in general, and he is in much demand as a lecturer and presenter at university seminars and academic conferences throughout the United States, Europe, and Israel.
Levin grew up in a musical family in the Chicago area, where his principal emphasis was on piano studies and performance. A pupil of the illustrious Swiss pianist Rudolph Ganz (1877–1972), he won local and national competitions in his teen years and, at the age of fourteen, played at the Ravinia Festival—then the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He went to New York to study piano with Adele Marcus at The Juilliard School while pursuing a liberal arts degree at Columbia University. Influenced first by the cantor at his family’s congregation, and later by exposure to a number of great virtuoso cantors who were then still flourishing in New York synagogues, he developed a deep interest in cantorial art and history in the wider context of both synagogue and secular Jewish music studies.
At Columbia, Levin studied with Howard Shanet, Jack Beeson, Mario Davidovsky, and Otto Luening—who became his mentor. During that timeframe, he also began his exposure to traditional Yeshiva learning.
After earning his B.A. degree, he spent a year in Israel, where he immersed himself in Hebrew language, Jewish studies, and Jewish musical investigations in preparation for his graduate academic work; and he also began to engage in field research and oral history collection—which he continued thereafter in the United States, Canada, and England. Returning to New York, he earned an M.A. degree at Columbia and, at the same time, studied both general Judaica and Jewish music at the Jewish Theological Seminary. It was there that he earned his doctorate in Jewish music and music history, with Hugo Weisgall (Chairman of the Faculty) playing a central role as his teacher, mentor, dissertation advisor, and—when Levin joined the Seminary’s faculty in 1982 after teaching for several years in the music department of Columbia—his senior colleague. Levin was also profoundly influenced by private studies with two distinguished Jewish music historians and musicologists: Eric Werner and Albert Weisser.
In addition to his academic work, Levin is also a highly regarded choral conductor. He studied choral conducting in Robert Page’s master classes and workshops at the Aspen Music School and Festival in the 1970s, and from 1973 to 1978 he directed the Chicago Zimriya Youth Chorus. He is the founder and director of two professional Jewish choruses: the mixed-voice Coro Hebraeica and the male-voice Schola Hebraeica, which has toured the United States and Canada numerous times, recorded extensively, and performed in England on several occasions. His London conducting debut was in 1988, and in 1990 he made his debut at the Royal Festival Hall in London, conducting the English Players and Schola Hebraeica in Voice of Jewish Russia—a production he devised. He is also the creator of Vanished Voices, a Holocaust commemoration incorporating his research into the music traditions of German-speaking Jewry, performed under his baton in 1996 at London’s Barbican Centre as well as in Los Angeles and New York. His Lincoln Center conducting debut was in 1997, and in 1999 he directed more than a dozen concerts (with Schola Hebraeica and other ensembles) at the biannual Sacred Voices Music Village international festival.
From 1990 to 1998 Levin was the Editor of Musica Judaica, the academic Journal of the American Society for Jewish Music. He has published numerous articles on Jewish music, several archival-historical recordings (apart from the Milken Archive), and books. In 1982 the University of Vienna commissioned him to edit the complete works of Salomon Sulzer for the prestigious series, Denkmäler der Tonkunst in Österreich (Monuments of Music). His historical study of music and cantorial education within the Conservative movement was published in 1997 in the book Tradition Renewed (edited by Jack Wertheimer). He has also contributed chapters to scholarly books on Jewish music, which are published in Germany. In addition, he has devised and directed five international academic conferences and conference-festivals on Jewish musical themes: Varied Voices (1987), co-sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary and the American Society for Jewish Music; A Voice for Our Time (1991), devoted to the music of Salomon Sulzer and other Austrian Jewish composers, and co-sponsored by the Seminary and Hebrew Union College; Counter-Harmonies (1989), a conference on the music of modern Israel, which was co-sponsored by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, the 92nd Street Y, the Keshet Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts; Voice of Ashkenaz (1997), a deliberation on the musical legacy of German Jewry, co-sponsored by JTS and the Leo Baeck Institute; and Only in America (2003), which addressed the music of American Jewish experience and which was sponsored jointly by the Seminary and the Milken Archive.
In 2004, in recognition of his program notes about the Russian Jewish composer, Joseph Achron, in the accompanying booklet to the Milken Archive CD devoted to Achron’s music, Levin was presented with the coveted Deems Taylor Award—the annual award given by the American Society of Composers and Publishers (A.S.C.A.P.) for the most original and informative liner notes to a commercially distributed recording.