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Concert Review

Lowell Liebermann

Jeff Biegel

Piano Concerto #3

World première - May 12-14, 2006
Jeffrey Biegel, piano
Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra/Andreas Delfs

Also on the program: Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

Many works are heard for the first and last times at their première performances and I have long regretted that works considered worth programming once are not routinely given second hearings in subsequent seasons. (For instance I would love to hear again a concerto for orchestra commissioned by the Milwaukee Symphony several years ago following, as I recall, the sonic improvement of the hall in which it plays; unfortunately even the composer's name now eludes me, but I do recall his saying that he had been asked to write for the orchestra's full forces, including a rather fine organ, and he did so very well.) It is certain that this new work will be heard again beginning next season, not in Milwaukee but at seventeen other venues from Anchorage to Schleswig-Holstein at least, including Louisiana, Colorado and San Diego, by virtue of the efforts of Biegel who, more than somewhat of an impresario, put together an international consortium to commission this work. (He has done similar things before.) I do not hesitate in predicting that this work will be recorded also. Why? Not just that it is a brilliant work; that might not be enough these days. However, its two piano-concerto precedents were recorded by Hyperion, with Stephen Hough at the piano and the composer at the podium. Liebermann has many other recordings. The New York Times reviews Liebermann's works: his new opera was just reviewed by Bernard Holland, who could have liked it more, though he did praise the Julliard orchestra – conducted by Andreas Delfs. (As it happens, the American première of Liebermann's previous opera, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was in Milwaukee.) And it does not hurt the work's commercial prospects that it is composed in a conservative style, frankly.

There was an interesting discussion of musical tonality at the (routinely scheduled) pre-concert colloquy in Milwaukee, with the Resident Conductor, Andrew Massey, and members of the prospective audience conversing with the composer. Liebermann earned a doctorate at Julliard, studying with David Diamond and Vincent Persichetti. He mentioned that Diamond was rather shocked that Liebermann did not protect his academic flanks by utilizing more "wrong notes." Liebermann also confessed that he wrote his first concerto in just a few days. The new one was written mostly in the first two months of the present year. (A happy thing that he writes with such facility; a recent commission from a prominent composer had to be cancelled because, I understand, the composer was too busy to complete it.)

For those familiar with the work of Liebermann's distinguished teachers it will not be a surprise to learn that much of the sound of this work might well have been produced sixty years ago, as Scott Morrison suggests in connection with Liebermann's previous concertos, in a brief review on Amazon. Others have been reminded of Shostakovich, Prokofieff, Ravel, Bartók and even Rachmaninoff. I was in fact reminded of Bartók during an intense passage for massed strings toward the end of the wonderful Largo of the third concerto, and of Ravel at moments in the finale marked "Burlesque." If there is a touch of Rachmaninoff that would be in the opening "Risoluto." But such references are very misleading. The big brash opening does not sound like anybody else's music and the superb largo doesn't either, except for the moment I mentioned. This is a big, bold work (32 minutes; the conventional three movements; large orchestra including five percussionists including timpani, and harp.)

In his pre-concert conversation Liebermann also said that he usually writes in short-score, with orchestral color in mind all the time, and that he usually writes with attention simply on the notes and where he wants them to go – although sometimes they go places he certainly did not foresee. (This in response to a questioner who wanted a comparison with literary writing.) However he also reported, presumably in a conversation with Roger Ruggeri who writes the MSO's program notes, that "the emotional framework in which I composed the Concerto was perhaps more affected by…non-musical events than is usual…prompted by some of the things that have been going on in our country lately." Thus the first movement is "deeply pessimistic"; the second, "ruefully nostalgic"; and the finale's title is meant "sarcastically…full of anger and irony…" I confess that I did not hear expression of such feelings. I am a strong believer in the power of music to express emotions but such subtleties may be difficult to catch on a single hearing of an unfamiliar work. Usually when I review a new (recorded) work I need many hearings to be sure of my grasp on what the composer is doing – and how others might react to it – even when the work is as easy to listen to as this one is. I did like what I heard and I would like to be able to enjoy multiple hearings of this work. I might have paid to hear it again today, but I doubted that I would be able to get a ticket.

As indicated above, the bulk of the concert this week was devoted to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. This made for an odd pairing, no doubt, but had the great advantage, given sold-out houses, which I am sorry to say have not been the rule lately, of getting thousands and thousands of people to hear the Liebermann!

There may seem little point of my reviewing the Beethoven performance here, but I feel a need to mention two moments and one movement that particularly impressed me. The deliberate care with which Delfs built the final climax in the first movement (my favorite movement in that work, actually) was arresting; I think I have heard only Pierre Monteux, Michael Tilson Thomas and Benjamin Britten display that kind of control.

The moment in the Ode to Joy at the end of the chorus' first huge crescendo yielded to sudden silence in a way analogous to high ground suddenly ending at a sheer cliff, as at Dover; in a half-century of listening to this work only Dimitry Mitropoulos, in (one of?) his last concerts at the New York Philharmonic, achieved this; in comparison, one of Karajan's recordings suggests a landslide at this point. The MSO chorus itself, and the Chorus Director Lee Erickson (whose position was just upgraded through a new endowment) surely deserve much credit for this. Finally, the tempi in the adagio were just right. Some of my favorite conductors have disappointed me in that movement, by playing it too slow or without enough tension, so that it fell apart; and there is a recorded performance which destroys the poignant mood with speed. I have always considered Andreas Delfs an excellent conductor. Now I think he may be a great one in the making.

Copyright © 2006, R. James Tobin