Lowell Liebermann

Review: Lowell Liebermann | Cliburn Concerts | Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

Be Yourself

Composer Lowell Liebermann gives a splendid concert for the Cliburn at the Modern series.

published Sunday, October 19, 2014

Photo: Christian Steiner
Lowell Liebermann
Fort Worth — One of the joys of living near the home of the Cliburn Foundation is their series at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth that features the leading composers of our time. Similar such series are scarce, practically non-existent  elsewhere. October 11 saw the return of Lowell Liebermann to the Metroplex.

He was the composer-in-residence for the Dallas Symphony, an unfortunately mothballed program (the Fort Worth Symphony gets a gold star for continuing theirs). His reputation and frequency of performances continues to grow with the long-awaited return to neo-tonal music. Some of his pieces, especially his works for flute, have become standards.

We didn’t hear anything for flute but we did hear his sonata for violin, some thoughtful songs and his second piano trio—all strong pieces written in the 20th century (one in 2001, just over the line). Something more recent would have been appreciated so we could have assessed his growth in the last decade or so.

Shields-Collins Bray, pianist for the FWSO, is the energy behind this series and acts as emcee and occasionally as pianist, which he was at this concert. We rarely get to hear the FWSO associate concertmaster Swang Lin or cellist Leda Larson, so this was a rare treat to explore the depth of the orchestra’s string section. Both did a fine job and Lin proved himself more that worthy of the FWSO one of their pair of Stradivarius violins (concertmaster Michael Shih has the other). Baritone Christian Bester was the singer for the songs. He is the Artistic Director of Voces Intimae, the outstanding local art song concert series.

The songs, titled Night Songs, are based on poetry of Robert Frost, Mark Van Doren, Robert Graves and Randall Jarrell (in order of appearance). Unfortunately, as happens so often, we were not supplied with the words. Even the best singers cannot make all of the words understandable and, while Bester did an admirable job with diction, much was left for us to decipher.

Musically, all three songs were appropriately nocturnal and dreamily expressive, but a modest change of pace for the middle song would have been welcome. Part of this might have been Bester’s over-romanticized presentation, which was the same for all three.

In general (at least in all we heard on Saturday), Liebermann makes frequent use of an ostinato (repeated pattern as a base). Such patterns frequently occurred in both the songs and string pieces we heard on the program. Over this, he let the soloist soar with an outburst of lyricism while keeping some movement in the accompaniment. His harmonies are basically tonal but sound refreshing and new, expanded by his assimilation of the best aspects of the musical events of the past century. He will frequently hang his harmonies over a pedal point, which keeps them anchored (in a good way) as they explore the harmonic edges.

The fast movements of both the sonata and the trio are not just faster, but are percussive, angular and brazenly forthright as they offer great technical challenges to the players. One effective compositional technique is his use of repeated notes, which creates anticipation as to where the music will go when released.

Liebermann had much to say in the interview portions of the concert. He is a fine pianist himself and continues to play publically. He considers it important for composers to continue to perform the music of others, as well as their own. 

“There is a physical aspect to music,” he said. “Historically, composers have always been performers but now, you are one or the other.”

While this might be an exaggeration, his point is valid. The composer/performed has a feel for how music reaches from the stage to the audience—what works and what doesn’t. Composers who are not performers (the so-called ivory tower group) lack this insight and their music frequently fails to bring the audience along on the path the performer is setting out. Not so with Liebermann. Looking around the hall, it was easy to see that his music never dropped the listener’s attention or interest—even as it challenges and innovates.

Liebermann made an oblique reference to the domination of the avant-garde in the 20th century, which was felt by many Liebermann-like composers (such as Lee Hoiby). It wasn’t so long ago that anything vaguely tonal was laughed off the stage by those “in charge,” which left the audience baffled and running for the exits. This reaction is improving as history sifts the music from this era, as it is beginning to do, and the great pieces will rise to the top. Composers today have a much richer palette because of all of the experimentation, but we will never know what the dismissal of composers who wanted to write in any other musical style cost us.

“There are no rules now,” Liebermann said. “Today, there is right or wrong. Composers need to write what they would like to hear themselves. Don’t write what others expect you to write or what is popular at the moment. Write your own music.”

Well said. Thanks For Reading

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Be Yourself
Composer Lowell Liebermann gives a splendid concert for the Cliburn at the Modern series.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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