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CLASSICAL  May 2006

CLASSICAL May 2006

Subject:

Outstanding Premiere

From:

James Tobin <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 15 May 2006 16:16:42 -0500

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Lowell Liebermann.  Piano Concerto No.  3.  World premiere by the Milwaukee
Symphony Orchestra, Andreas Delfs conducting, Jeffrey Biegel, piano.
May 12-14, 2006.  Also on the program: Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

Many works are heard for the first and last times at their premiere
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 premiere 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, Prokofiev, Ravel,
Bartok and even Rachmaninoff.  I was in fact reminded of Bartok 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.

Jim Tobin

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