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Composer Lowell Liebermann: Creating a Better, Alternative World

Like many of music history’s traditional classical music composers, Lowell Liebermann doesn’t only compose, but he also performs. Not limiting himself to playing his own compositions, he also dedicates some of his time to the works of other composers.To my mind, this informs Liebermann’s attitude towards composing, and shows his deep connection to classical music in general.

Photo: Ilona Oltuski

“I understand what pianists go through, so I am very sympathetic, and the exchange with the performer [of my composition] becomes much easier and more meaningful. Due to the emphasis on specialization in America, we have unfortunately created the phenomena of composers who are not active performers themselves. I think that this often results in losing touch with the physical joy and the direct connection to the active process of performing,” says Liebermann. “Most performers of my premieres have adhered to extremely high performance standards, but I don’t really write for a specific performer, otherwise it won’t fit anyone else."  Ida Kavafian, renowned violinist and violist and member of the piano quartet Opus One, who also serves as Artistic Director of the Angel Fire Festival in New Mexico, says about Liebermann: “Mr. Liebermann is not only an extraordinary composer, but also an outstanding pianist. It has been wonderful playing his music in groups with him, and in our piano quartet, Opus One. This summer, we premiered his Quartet for Piano and Strings Op.114 (2010), at Angel Fire; my festival had commissioned him to write a work of his choice as part of his composer-in-residence participation...” In 2007, John Bloomfield dedicated a lecture at the annual Golandsky Summer Institute at Princeton University to Lowell Lieberman’s composition for piano solo, “Three Impromptus” Op. 68 (2000). Written to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Yaddo artist colony in Saratoga Springs, the piece had been premiered by Stephen Hough at New York’s Alice Tully Hall on May 4th, 2000. The Grand Prize winner of the Van Cliburn First International Composers' Invitational Competition, it was published by the Theodore Presser Company. Says John Bloomfield: “With the beginning of the 20th century, composers looked for ways to expand the range of sonorities instruments were capable of producing. While George Crumb, for instance, sometimes has the pianist strum or pluck strings inside the piano, Liebermann keeps us on the keys, but uses the complete range of the piano, from the keyboard’s lowest note to the highest. In these extreme registers, the point is to create dramatic sounds and textures… Lowell Lieberman By intentionally blurring sound through pedaling, he creates an ambiguity between areas of clarity and areas of harmonic blurring, all contributing to the overall texture of the piece."

It was pianist Sandro Russo who, in October 2007, had invited me to hear Liebermann’s work being performed at the Louis Meisel Gallery on Soho’s Prince Street. Every so often, the Meisels put up their distinctly bohemian home and gallery to host concerts by young artists. That night, Russo played Liebermann’s 5th Nocturne, a piece commissioned by the Adele Marcus Foundation, and premiered in 1997.

Schnabel-protégée Adele Marcus, herself a performer and a piano teacher at the Juilliard School, shares her February 22nd birthday with Liebermann; the two met during his years studying at Juilliard. Liebermann’s extensive studies included piano lessons with Jacob Lateiner, composition classes with David Diamond and Vincent Persichetti, and conducting classes with Lazlo Halasz. In 1987, he graduated Juilliard’s music arts program with a bachelor, a master’s degree and a doctorate. Liebermann says that he feels lucky to have been connected to Juilliard’s amazing talent pool right from the start; after all, some of America’s most talented musicians, including Andrew Litton, Stephen Hough, and Jeffrey Biegel, had trained and taught at Juilliard.

Biegel fondly remembers Liebermann sometimes knocking at the practice room door and asking him to play through a new piece. Liebermann and Biegel connected again years later, through the commission for Liebermann’s 3rd concerto. “It is certainly a strong piece, with energy and many beautiful moments. The lyricism is haunting and very unique, while the pianistic sections require fine pianism. One can sense the inspiration from Brahms, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Barber, but Lowell’s musical language is his own, and gives the listener every feeling and emotion needed to experience and enjoy his music,” says Biegel.

Cellist Steven Isserlis, another champion of Liebermann's compositions, says: "Lowell Liebermann is a wonderfully talented composer, with a real gift for melody and a connection to players and listeners that is rare. I loved working with him on the sonata that he wrote for Stephen Hough and myself - and he is great fun to be with as well."

Steven Isserlis

Talking about the process of composing a piece, Liebermann explains: “If you are writing an orchestral piece, you hear the sound in your head; in other instances, you envision a specific instrumental solo. I try to immerse myself as much as possible in particularities, acquiring an overview of everything I can get to know about a particular instrument. Besides piano, I don’t really play another instrument, although I am learning the cello right now.”

London-based pianist Stephen Hough is also a Juilliard graduate; he studied side-by-side with Liebermann, and the two musicians still keep in touch with each other. “I played many of Lowell Liebermann’s pieces over the years,” says Hough. “Two of his sonatas and the 2nd Concerto are dedicated to me personally … I’ve always found that everything about his music felt natural, both musically and pianistically … He‘s a musician of tremendous intelligence and sensitivity, and a treasured friend.” Filling in for Murray Periaha, who had to cancel his performance at the Stern Auditorium’s Perelman Stage due to a hand injury, Stephen Hough will perform at New York’s Carnegie Hall on November 18th. That same evening, Sandro Russo will perform his tribute to Chopin and Schumann at Carnegie Hall’s Weill’s Recital Hall. It is a nice coincidence that these two artists who first met through a friend in 2001, will be performing under the same roof (albeit in different parts of the venue). It was the friend they both share, Richard Goula from Louisiana, who had commissioned Liebermann’s 6th Nocturne

Stephen Hough and  Sandro Russo (Photo: Ilona Oltuski)

After meeting Liebermann, Russo became a champion of Liebermann’s works, premiering the composer’s 8th Nocturne (Op.85) in Europe in 2004, his 10th Nocturne (Op. 99) in June 2007, and his Four Etudes on Brahms Songs (Op. 88) at a recital presented by the Pro-Mozart Society of Atlanta in 2009. He also recorded Liebermann’s work for his 2010 Piano Recital CD.

Says Russo: “I very much cherish these works for the perfection and sophistication of their piano writing, and for representing a spiritual continuation of such romantic masters such as Liszt, Rachmaninov and Faure, at the same time… His series of Nocturnes can, by all means, join Chopin and Faure’s great masterpieces of the same genre. In my opinion, Lowell understands the physicality of the instrument so well; in fact, his compositions feel great under the pianist’s fingers.”

Liebermann, in turn, appreciates Russo as “a pianist’s pianist and a musician’s musician, for whom no technical difficulty seems to be too challenging, and whose interpretations reveal his unique and profound artistry.”

So, once again, the world of the international performance circuit shows its local roots, and its connecting threads woven by personal encounters. Given that commissions and deadlines tend to rule a composer’s daily life otherwise, this "human element" seems reassuring.

To my surprise, Liebermann is happy to point to the positive side of his life between those two poles: “I get inspired by commissions and deadlines,” he explains.

“Composing is a very difficult and sometimes painful process, since you are constantly creating something out of nothing, trying to generate some sort of logic or abstract morality, which—although built on abstract rules—is in search of inevitable solutions. You obsess a thousand times over each detail. When I have twelve months, I will ponder during eleven of them, so deadlines at least provide an outer barrier.”

And he concludes: “I try not to figure out what my place in music history is; I leave that to others. My interest is only to write music, that I, sitting in the audience, would like to hear myself.”

Judging from his creative output, Liebermann’s place in music history already is secure.

“My love for music came through my exposure to the great Western classical tradition; that’s the continuum I always wanted to be part of. There has been the cliché of modern music always having to break with tradition, which I see as a kind of Marxist perspective. I rather see a continuous building on tradition, within which I find a context that I want to be part of. I do not set out to innovate, but rather to create conditions that lead to something—not in a predictable sense, but rather inescapably so. Until it’s done—for better or worse—I don’t stop for feedback.”

Liebermann rarely has his scores printed before their premiere, and he hardly ever revises them; yet, when he does revise, his changes do not go beyond minor technical details. Small adjustments were made in cooperation with Stephen Hough to the score of the Second Concerto; with Jeffrey Biegel to the Third Concerto; and with John Mannase to the Clarinet Concerto.He stresses that the urge to do what he does best serves him as ultimate inspiration: “One does not write music because one wants to, but because one must. Art is about transcending limitations, whether in painting, when transcending the limitations of the canvas, or in playing the piano, with its limited 88-key keyboard. It is about creating a landscape where one can lose oneself. Composing is about the journey to create a better, alternative world." Highlights of Lowell Liebermann’s current season are the first performances of his Third Symphony, commissioned under the Magnum Opus project of “Meet the Composer,” for the orchestras of Virginia, Nashville and Marin- JoAnn Falletta conducts the world premiere with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra in November 2010. Other commissions include a work for the 50th anniversary of the American Harp Society, a piano trio for Trio Solisti, commissioned by the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music, and a piano quartet, commissioned by Music from Angel Fire for the group Opus One. For more information see this bio or Liebermann's website. Ilona Oltuski's article has been first published at



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