It seemed to his loved ones that Jess Levin could have followed any one of his many passions and been incredibly successful.
He buzzed with an intellect others could find intimidating, no matter how gentle his manner or encouraging his spirit. Physics and photography were strong contenders, even music composition, but in the end the violin won the majority of his attention, and he spent more than 40 years playing fiddle for the North Carolina Symphony.
Still, those other passions held strong, and while he was dedicated to his symphony “family,” he never lost sight of the wonders of science, and created a side career as a professional photographer. Among the highlights of his symphonic career was hearing his own symphony play works that he had composed.
Levin died last month, a day after his 64th birthday. The sudden, massive heart attack took everyone by surprise, no one more so than his wife of 33 years, Pam Halverson.
When he died he was reading a number of books, among them “Pride and Prejudice,” for he thought everyone should read at least one work by Jane Austen. He was also in the midst of books on astrophysics, a profile of Albert Einstein, and time theory. Like Levin a lover of music and science, Halverson always looked forward to their breakfast discussions about the latest scientific breakthroughs or turn in world events.
“He stretched what I was mentally. It was wonderful,” Halverson said. “He did have an amazing mind, but he treated me as if mine were just as amazing but in different places. It just makes you feel good about who you are. ”
‘Never looked back’
Levin was raised in New York City, one of three artistic children born to artistic parents. His father was a world-class violinist who played for broadcast television, Broadway and film. He knew how tough the music world could be and encouraged his son to take the science route. Levin excelled as a student at the elite Bronx High School of Science and for a while it seemed he might listen to his father’s advice. He went so far as to begin college as a physics major, but spent most of his time in the music classrooms, his wife said.
It wasn’t long before Levin transferred to one of the top music programs in the country, the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati – and he nearly graduated.
“He had one class left and won his spot in the North Carolina Symphony, and never looked back,” Halverson said. “He loved his job. He loved the people. He loved the music. He was proud of his spot.”
Levin joined the North Carolina Symphony in 1974, and held the J. Felix Arnold First Violin Chair. Though the symphony still travels regularly around the state, it spent considerably more time on the road in Levin’s early days as a member, and those many hours on a bus made for ample bonding opportunities.
His colleagues remember him as a thoughtful speaker, interested in others, someone who didn’t chime in unless he had something meaningful to add to the conversation.
“Jess was a caring and compassionate person,” said Paul Goldsberry, longtime member of the first violin section. “If I was absent from work, he would always ask if everything was all right when I returned. He always sent an e-card to me on my birthday, even thought I never reciprocated.”
Levin started his photography business long after he established his violin career, and took great pleasure in the art form. Halverson discovered after his death that he had kept a favorite photo he’d taken of her tucked behind his driver’s license.
Excited about it all
Levin became the go-to photographer for many of his colleagues, capturing personal memories such as the family reunion for symphony cellist John McClellan.
“He was typical Jess, very gentle soul, he was delighted with the family and really enjoyed the kids – got some great pictures,” McClellan said. “That’s just a very nice memory.”
Levin wrote on his photography website, “My life has been, and continues to be, devoted to more than one art form . . . What I hope you will understand is that I do not treat any of these endeavors half-heartedly.”
His loved ones only wish he’d had more time to explore his talents and passions.
“He was excited about everything,” his wife said. “Everything.”
Jess Isaiah Levin
Born Feb. 15, 1951.
FAMILY: Marries Pam Halverson in 1981.
EDUCATION: Attends the Bronx High School of Science in New York, and studies music theory with resident Juilliard composer Hall Overton. Begins college at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, but transfers to the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati.
CAREER: Joins North Carolina Symphony in 1974. Self-employed at Classical Photography by Jess Isaiah Levin.
Dies Feb. 16.