Can this man save classical music?

You think modern concert music is doomed to atonal squonk? You haven't heard Lowell Liebermann, the postmodernist composer listeners actually like.


Barbara Kevles
November 22, 2002 1:00AM (UTC)

If you think the innovations of Arnold Schoenberg doomed modern concert music to atonal dissonance, you haven't heard the crowd-pleasing works of Lowell Liebermann, who champions the return of lyrical melody and tonality to contemporary classical music. Dubbed a leader of the "new tonalists" by Time, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, the 41-year-old Liebermann, like such other American composers as Aaron Jay Kernis, Richard Danielpour and George Tsontakis, has rejected the post-World War II avant-garde compulsion for complicated, esoteric cacophony in favor of conventional tonality -- the traditional harmonies found in most Western music from the Renaissance to rock.

Name performers and famous orchestras have rewarded his efforts to write music that actually communicates with audiences. In the last two years, Liebermann's works have been premiered by the New York Philharmonic, the Indianapolis Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Nonetheless, critics devoted to the dissonant, modernist aesthetic have derided Liebermann's neo-romantic tonality as "an anachronism" and "artistic escapism," his music's accessibility as "pandering," and his unabashed use of traditional forms like the concerto as "derivative."

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Such criticism has not stopped celebrated flautist James Galway, the Steinway Foundation, former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk and numerous others from giving Liebermann commissions. Nor has it impeded the Dallas Symphony Orchestra from inviting him to take a three-year composer-in-residence position or performing eight of his works, three of which were world premieres. The controversies swirling around Liebermann's embrace of the romantic tradition have only boosted his prolific output, now totaling more than 80 works.

At a benefit luncheon last October, renowned pianist Van Cliburn was asked by a fellow Texan, ABC newsman Sam Donaldson, to name composers he liked in the last 100 years. The first name Cliburn dropped was Liebermann's.

Liebermann's musical interests were ignited by parental influence and fanned by personal ambition. Though born Feb. 22, 1961, in New York City, Liebermann spent his childhood in the middle-class neighborhood of Forest Hills, Queens, a subway ride away from Manhattan. There he began studying piano at age 8, at his mother's insistence. By age 13, when the family relocated to suburban Westchester County, just north of New York, he had decided to become a composer.

"I lacked the discipline to sit and keep repeating piano pieces till they were right," he says. "Composing was much more difficult, but more interesting."

At 14, Liebermann began to study composition with Ruth Schonthal, a distinguished pupil of Paul Hindemith, the foremost German composer between the two world wars, who was known for his neo-baroque style. Liebermann's edgy but forcefully tonal Piano Sonata No. 1, written at age 15, won the Music Teachers National Association first prize in 1978. At 17, he began a year as a music major at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and private lessons with David Diamond, a faculty member at the Juilliard School, to prepare for Juilliard's infamously tough admission exams.

Juilliard's composition department evaluates not only applicants' scores, but also their musicianship by written and oral exams. Liebermann had his orals before a formidable faculty jury of the giants of post-World War II modernism. It included Milton Babbitt, who took serialism to the extreme in rhythm, note length and dynamics; Elliott Carter, a composer of maximum density and rhythmic complexity; Roger Sessions, a thorny chromatic academic; Diamond, who was then in his dissonant phase; and the eclectic Vincent Persichetti.

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Persichetti asked the young applicant to identify rhythmic patterns, key changes and intervals one by one as he played them for him. "One was so familiar, I went blank for a moment. Then I realized he was playing my first piano sonata," Liebermann recalls. "It was a dirty trick under that kind of stress and pressure."

Liebermann was the only composition major admitted to Juilliard's freshman class of 1979. He received a full-tuition scholarship (which lasted through his bachelor, masters and doctoral studies) and 12 credits for advanced standing. "I was 18 and the youngest composer in the department," he says.

Schonthal warned him not to be seduced by "the tremendous aesthetic dictatorship in the profession," which she defined as "no melodies, no lyricism, nothing but dissonance." She cautioned him to remain true to his own artistic vision.

That wasn't easy given the Juilliard faculty mind-set. Liebermann recalls, "I felt pressure to stick wrong notes into a passage to make it sound modern, or otherwise be accused of being old-fashioned."

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Pressure came not only from faculty but from peers. When Liebermann's first cello sonata was heard in a Juilliard composer's forum, one of his colleagues accused him of self-indulgence for using a fifth (a traditional harmonic building block) in the accompaniment. Why, in keeping with the modernist aesthetic, hadn't Liebermann used a tritone (a three-whole-step interval)?

Classmate David Korevaar, a pianist with a second major in composition, remembers, "In the early '80s, we were all trying to write ugly music."

Finally, Liebermann bucked the prevailing aesthetic "out of stubbornness and integrity," says Korevaar. In 1983, Liebermann departed from David Diamond's dicta of dissonance when he wrote his Piano Sonata No. 2. Liebermann says, "Diamond didn't like the direction my music was going; it was too tonal."

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Liebermann learned from Juilliard's instrumentalists as well, for whom he wrote works to showcase their talents and his own. He remembered meeting pianist Stephen Hough in Juilliard's cafeteria. "He was smoking a pipe wearing a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches and looking very middle-aged for 18," Liebermann says.

Hough championed Liebermann's early music in Europe and America, and the composer has dedicated three works to him, most recently the 1992 Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2, which premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington, under Mstislav Rostropovich. Hough's spellbinding performance of Liebermann's two piano concertos under the composer's baton, for a Hyperion CD, would earn a Grammy nomination in 1998.

Liebermann's big break came in 1987, the final year of his doctoral studies. A successful premiere of a work at the prestigious Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., galvanized the festival to commission him to write a Sonata for Flute and Piano for its program the following year. The piece just took off.

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"It fulfilled a need in the flute repertoire," Liebermann says. "It allows the flute to do things which it often doesn't get a chance to do -- namely big, expansive, virtuosic playing." Now considered mainstream, the work has been recorded 10 different times.

Though Liebermann's hummable melodies and traditional harmonic structures have won him popularity among performers and concertgoers, many modernists label his music as overly conservative. They believe that only art that makes the greatest demands on audiences gives the highest rewards. For them, overtly accessible music like Liebermann's, by definition, panders to the lowest denominator.

For his part, Liebermann denies trying to write crowd-pleasers. "It's something I never do," he says. "I simply write music I would like to hear. My ideal audience would be comprised of 2,000 clones of myself."

The buzz about Liebermann's Sonata for Flute and Piano generated a spate of commissions for concertos that filled important voids in the literature of wind and brass instruments. In the early '90s, James Galway's chance encounter with the composer on New York's Broadway led Galway to commission a Concerto for Flute and Orchestra. "One of my most satisfying moments was when Jimmy Galway said my orchestration was genius because the flute can always be heard," Liebermann says. Three years later, a consortium of symphony orchestras commissioned Concerto for Flute, Harp and Orchestra, recorded by Galway along with the first concerto for a BMG CD.

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Among the St. Louis Symphony members playing at the Galway premiere of the flute concerto was "Mr. Piccolo," Jan Gippo, the dedicated chairman of the piccolo committee of the National Flute Association. Mesmerized by Liebermann's work, he buttonholed the composer about a concerto for the piccolo -- only six concertos for the solo piccolo existed in the instrument's entire literature.

Liebermann agreed, and three years later, Gippo made the first down payment by taking a second mortgage on his parents' home and eventually raised the entire commission. In May 1996, he received the longest piccolo concerto ever written. Remarkably, Liebermann's melodies allowed the piccolo to play as beautifully as any violin. In preparation, Gippo played it three times straight through, three times a day. For his efforts, he took three curtain calls after premiering the work in 1996 at the National Flute Association convention in New York.

Jeffrey Curnow, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra's soloist for Liebermann's Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra, called it "an American standard," but when New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini reviewed the work's premiere by the New York Philharmonic in 2000, Tommasini's concerns about originality echoed an issue that plagues all the neo-romantic composers:

"Mr. Liebermann says that after completing this [first movement] he realized to his surprise that the main melody was rather like that favorite ditty of trumpeters, 'The Carnival of Venice.' That the concerto's melody is so similar in contour and mood suggests that Mr. Liebermann was not working too hard to be original ... The problem for any composer working in such a derivative vein is the inevitable comparisons with the original models. You are tempted to say that the music was better when Barber wrote it. Or, in this case, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev as well."

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Tim Jackson, a prolific contributor to Cambridge University Press's composer series, sharply disputes Tommasini's characterization. "Liebermann is working in an accepted musical tradition dating back to the Renaissance," he says. "Then it was considered an even greater feat of originality to make something new out of an older composition than to make something brand new. Originality isn't measured by distance from models, but by the total organic tonal structure of the piece."

In the case of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra appointment, Liebermann's embrace of the past worked for him. Eugene Bonelli, then president of the DSO, had attended the '92 St. Louis world premiere. When, under the initiative of music director Andrew Litton, the Dallas orchestra established a composer-in-residence position, Bonelli recommended Liebermann to Litton, who'd been a few classes ahead of Liebermann at Juilliard.

Says Bonelli, "We wanted a composer whose music was accessible to symphonic audiences. We wanted to build support for modern music without alienating our subscribers, so accessibility was a deciding factor."

Liebermann's appointment in the fall of 1999 coincided with the arrival of classical music critic Scott Cantrell at the Dallas Morning News, the city's most important newspaper. Cantrell revealed his devotion to modernism when reviewing a recent program of contemporary music created in the 1990s. He wrote, "all this ... music needed balance from something more intellectually demanding. I would have killed for some Elliott Carter." (Carter's legendarily difficult music is viewed as incomprehensible even by many music cognoscenti.)

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Not surprisingly, Cantrell has panned all Liebermann work assigned him. In an interview, Cantrell raised a significant point other critics have as well. "Mr. Liebermann is taking a used style and not doing anything original or fresh with it," he says. "Audiences like his music because it's flashy and it doesn't take them anywhere they haven't been before. If you're going to use these techniques, you have to find something fresh to say with them and not rehash gestures from the past. There is never an easy time to compose music. Our day is particularly difficult because our ears are filled with music from so many periods. So Mr. Liebermann is far from being the only composer who is afflicted with a sense of déjà vu or déjà entendu."

Korevaar, a masterly interpreter of Liebermann's subtly phrased solo piano pieces on a February 2003 Koch International Classics release, differs. "Lowell's harmonies leave our ear with the impression that he has used traditional chord progressions," he says, "but they move from triad to triad without following the textbook rules on harmonic progressions."

Cambridge Press' Tim Jackson agrees: "He leads by traditional voice leading from one chord or harmony to the next, but where he moves is atraditional."

Liebermann also utilizes modernist techniques. In his opera "The Picture of Dorian Gray," the opera's 12 consecutive scenes occur in the keys of the consecutive pitches of a 12-note row. (The sequence of keys is predetermined by Liebermann's unique ordering of the 12-note row of the chromatic scale. The use of the 12-note row is a distinctively modernist approach dating back to Schoenberg, its inventor.) In Liebermann's early piano work, Variations on a Theme of Anton Bruckner, the key of each variation is determined by the chords of each successive phrase ending (cadence point) that is marked with a fermata (hold) in the theme. Liebermann deconstructs Bruckner's theme by using the chord of each phrase ending in the theme to determine the key of each variation. Like a modernist, Liebermann preplans his structure from his analysis of Bruckner's theme.

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Electronic composer Martin Sweidel argues that the "postmodernist aesthetic [that Liebermann represents] allows you to reference other musical styles and pieces and put them in a new context with which to make something original."

Last year, Liebermann won the grand prize at the first American Composers Invitational sponsored by the Van Cliburn Foundation, beating out more than 30 other composers. In a future season, the Dallas Symphony plans to perform its ninth Liebermann work, Variations on a Theme of Mozart, based on a theme from the third act of Mozart's opera "The Abduction From the Seraglio." A classic in its own time, Liebermann's work presents Mozart's theme head-on, sideways, diagonally, expanded, contracted, speeded up. The piece reminds us of the five red balls in Richard Wilbur's poem "Juggler" that "roll around, wheel on his wheeling hands/ Learning the ways of lightness, alter to spheres/ Grazing his finger ends/ Cling to their courses there,/ Swinging a small heaven about his ears," removing us from our daily cares until "He reels that heaven in,/ Landing it ball by ball."

After the third curtain call for his Concerto for Piccolo and Orchestra at its performance in Dallas last January, the bespectacled Liebermann -- oblivious to the modernists who accuse him of being an artistic reactionary -- shyly advanced across the stage, his back bent. Then he straightened and started clapping for the soloist, who bowed. Then he turned to his applauding audience and clapped for them.


Barbara Kevles

Barbara Kevles has written for the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, Esquire and the Paris Review. She lives in Dallas.

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