Lowell Liebermann, pianist & composer

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

When I was about eight years old, I started piano lessons with a neighbour who was not a very good pianist. (My parents made the unfortunate but common mistake of thinking that the quality of a beginner’s teacher was not so important. It is.) I did not enjoy these lessons at all: the neighbouring widow I began lessons with had an unfortunate case of halitosis and would sing in my face with a tremulous but piecing Edith Bunker voice as I would attempt to play the piano. She taught me out of some awful piano courses that were popular then: bad music and mind-numbing finger exercises that were accompanied by weirdly depressing stick figure drawings. They were really dreadful books, condescendingly presented and seemingly calculated to scare anyone away from music permanently. I remember begging her to allow me to play what I called “real music,” by which I meant Bach’s Anna Magdalena Notebook or Schumann’s Album for the Young: alas, to no avail. She seemed intent on making me miserable. (That whole experience informed my composing years later – for the better, I hope – when I wrote my own Album for the Young.) Happily, I switched teachers before long and began studying with a wonderful woman in her 80’s whose name was Ada Sohn-Segal. She had studied with Leschetizky and Josef Hoffmann and had met Paderewski, and even went out on a “date” with George Gershwin! She was a wizened, tiny, cultured woman, who would talk often about art and literature. She would tell me wonderful stories, like of her hearing the (American, I think) premiere of Ravel’s Bolero and how the audience went crazy at the end of that radically obsessive piece. She would sit at her baby-grand Steinway and with her tiny, arthritically swollen hands, bash through the Tausig transcription of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d minor, making a wonderful noise. I was sold. What was supposed to be a 30-minute lesson inevitably turned into 4 or 5 hours, until my mother would call Mrs. Segal to tell her to send me home for dinner. It was in that little apartment that smelled of rose-water and simmering candied grapefruit peels (she always seemed to be making those) that my true love for music was born.

Ever since my very first piano lessons, I had started making up little pieces which I didn’t even know how to notate, since I was not yet adept at reading music. I would put dots on the music paper where I guessed they should go. (Many years later I found some of these early attempts and could not quite decipher what I had meant; they looked something like Morton Feldman scores.) As I studied with Mrs. Segal and learned to read and write music more fluently, my little pieces grew more ambitious. Then, one day when I was about thirteen, I suddenly announced to my parents that I wanted to be a composer by profession. I was, at that point thoroughly smitten with music and had written a three-movement piano piece titled after Whitman’s “Out Of The Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (a poem I would return to much later.) About this time, my family left New York City for the suburbs, where I started studying piano and composition in earnest with Ruth Schonthal, who had been a pupil of Hindemith and Manuel Ponce. After studying with her, I went to Juilliard and got my three degrees there.

Who or what have been the most significant influences on your musical life and career?

My piano teacher at Juilliard, Jacob Lateiner, was one of the biggest influences on my musical development. I started studying with him at a time when the idea of fidelity to the score was not quite a universally accepted principle. It was through his teaching of Beethoven that Lateiner really made me fully aware of the interconnectedness of all the elements of a score: that if you ignored the articulation or phrasing or dynamics, the whole structure would collapse. That mindset was something I carried into my own writing. My first composition teacher at Juilliard, David Diamond, was a great inspiration for his extraordinary stories about his early days in Paris, his sometimes insane flouting of acceptable social behaviour and the fierce dedication he showed to his students – a dedication that turned to stony hostility towards me when I switched to Vincent Persichetti for my Doctoral work. Persichetti was a terrific inspiration not only for his unbelievable musicianship but also for his dry humour and great humanity. He was also the person responsible for getting my first scores published.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Balancing composing and performing. I have always had a very obsessive nature, and when I am composing, I generally have to keep working at it at it until the piece is completed. So, I am usually reluctant to interrupt my composition work to practice other music. I become obsessed with what I am writing and don’t want someone else’s music in my brain space at the same time. But lately, with about 140 works in my catalogue, I feel less of a pressure to write so much music; and performing and recording have become very satisfying for me. A piano solo recording was something I had been thinking about for a long time, and it was the realization of my approaching 60th birthday that finally gave me the impetus to do it. So, this new recording, Personal Demons, was planned before the pandemic hit but once it did, all my commissions were put on hold, which left me with a totally open schedule (as was the case with most musicians.) It gave me the luxury of concentrating solely on the recording and it gave me a goal and a project to work on that I think was the best possible thing for my sanity in an insane time. I was a bit concerned during those first few weeks as I was practicing the Totentanz: banging out the Dies Irae theme for hours a day, wondering what my poor neighbours must be thinking if they could hear me. (Luckily, they could not.)

Which particular works/composers do you think you play best?

That’s a difficult question for me to be objective about. I always aim to get as close to a composer’s intentions as possible. This is, of course, more of an abstract goal than an attainable reality. I think I’ll just leave it to others to say what I play best. I can say which composers I feel “closest” to, and that would include Bach, Schubert, Beethoven, and some others. These composers are my musical “comfort food.” There are certain composers that are very special to me, like Busoni and Kabeláč but they are perhaps more like epicurean delicacies than comfort food.

How do you make your repertoire choices?

In the case of Personal Demons, I wanted to present pieces that were especially important to me; ones that I feel have had a big impact on my compositional outlook. And I wanted to include a couple of my own works. Of these, I felt I had to include Gargoyles, since it is my most performed piano piece and I thought pianists would be curious to hear the composer play it. I included my Apparitions because that is one of the less-performed pieces of mine that I am very fond of. And, the 10th Nocturne, at least for the moment, is my favourite out of my 11 Nocturnes.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I’m an enthusiastic cook and I love to give dinner parties. I always imagine that if I was a trust-fund kid I would do little else but give dinner parties. I’ve noticed that a lot of composers and pianists are very good chefs. I think the impulses for writing music and cooking come from the same place – it’s a nurturing thing but also a bit of a need to impress and show off.

I’ve also started painting again: I was torn when I was young between art and music and the music eventually won out. But I kept painting on and off into my early 20’s until composing became too all-encompassing to leave time for hobbies. So, I’ve picked up the pencil and brushes again and I’m having fun. I’m allowing myself a lot more time now to do other things, to smell the proverbial roses. (I do enjoy working in my garden, speaking of roses.) Another thing that I really enjoy doing is working on our house. I’ve done almost all the renovations myself and I find that to be a very satisfying thing – to see immediate results in a concrete (sometimes literally concrete!) way. When composing, once a piece is done you still have to wait until someone learns it and performs it and even then, the music itself is a very evanescent thing. There’s something really satisfying about building something touchable, something where one sees and feels the results immediately.

How would you characterise your compositional language/musical style?

My music is what I like to think of as “organic”: that the various elements grow out of a small musical seed, whether it be a motive, a collection of notes or intervals, an actual melody, or something else. My music is often tonal (meaning triad-based, but not necessarily in a traditionally functional sense) but sometimes it is atonal or uses octatonic or synthetic scales or tone rows or other materials. I will use whatever I feel is required by the musical argument at hand. And there is a point in the compositional process where the music dictates what it needs rather than the composer imposing their will. My music is, however, almost always melodically based. It has sometimes been described as Neo-Romantic, which annoys me because I think that is incorrect, or at least, misleading. My aesthetic sympathies have always tended more to the Classical side of things than the Romantic. I think that when a lot of people use terms like “romantic” or “neo-romantic” and even “tonal” to describe music, what they really mean is “melodic.”

How do you work, as a composer?

For me it is all about the manipulation of notes and the abstract emotions they evoke. I sometimes describe it as working with emotions the way an abstract painter uses colour. I am not usually inspired by extra-musical content. I am a “tactile” composer in that most of my ideas come to me while I am at the piano. I usually need the physical contact with the instrument to get things going; something that, I think, is common with many pianist/composers. Although, in one case – my Flute Concerto – I jotted down a sketch of the opening theme on a cocktail napkin in a bar at around 2:00 am after downing several Cosmopolitans. But usually ideas don’t come to me unless I am actively trying to compose. Writing music for me requires too much concentration. So, I will start at the piano and spend a great deal of time sketching, coming up with ideas and rejecting most of them. The amount of “think time” is usually much greater than the time spent writing down the actual piece. But this also depends on the particular work: there are always exceptions. Starting a new piece is always the most difficult part. It’s almost as if it already is there and I’m trying to unlock something that will reveal it to me. The act of composing feels like a search for an inevitability that doesn’t actually exist. The goal is to create the illusion that the way the piece unfolds is the only way it could have.

Does performing influence your composing – and vice versa?

I feel they are co-dependent. And like any co-dependent relationship, it is not always the easiest to navigate. But certainly, playing works I love by other composers fuels my own desire to compose; and I feel that composing gives me an insight into the creative process that informs my choices when I play music by other composers. My goal as a performer is always to try to get as close as possible to what the composer intended, something that is ultimately unknowable and unreachable in many aspects, but something I think one should always keep striving for.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

My favourite performers are those who disappear into the music, who embody the composer whose works they are playing. I get frustrated by the type of performer who uses the music as a vehicle with which to present their own “personality” or their own “reinterpretation” of a piece.

There are so many wonderful musicians and composers who are friends and colleagues, and many of the former who have played my music, that I am hesitant to name some and omit others. I have wonderful composer colleagues and there’s a lot of terrific music being written by them today: I think it’s a very rich time for music. But I will name one person who has been extremely important to me, as he recently turned 80 and has been a true champion of my music and a great friend, and that would be Sir James Galway. He’s a great musician and has been incredibly supportive to me throughout my career.

As far as composers go, when I was a student, I would have easily named people like Bach, Beethoven, Busoni, Schubert, Frank Martin, Shostakovitch, Britten, etc., as my main influences. I was of an age where I could have met Britten, Shostakovitch or Barber in person but regrettably that opportunity never presented itself. I did meet Copland, who was also a bit of an idol of mine, and he was charming. I remember so clearly these same composers being savagely reviewed in the press at the time by some of the same critics who would extravagantly praise them once they were dead. (I think of that every now and then to keep things in perspective.)

Nowadays, it has become more difficult for me to name specific influences, because I feel that almost every piece of music I hear becomes an influence, either actively or passively. Often elements creep into my music that I wouldn’t have thought I would ever include. Just one example, in the last movement of my Clarinet Concerto, elements of the Salsa and Merengue that I constantly hear blaring from car speakers in my neighbourhood appeared as I was writing the piece: it was almost as if I had no say in the matter!

While on the topic of composers and influence, I’d like to correct one bit of false information that has been perpetuated by Wikipedia: that Sorabji critiqued my music in correspondence with me and was somehow an influence. This is not so. As a freshman at Juilliard, at the encouragement of David Diamond I wrote a fan letter to Sorabji after reading one of his books which I found to be highly entertaining. Much to my surprise, Sorabji responded. I did send him my first piano Sonata, but he apologised that his eyesight was too poor to comfortably read it. I later dedicated my First Piano Concerto to him out of admiration for the endearingly eccentric figure that he was, but I could not say that he was any kind of influence on my own music. (In general, that Wikipedia article on me is full of factual errors and omissions.)

What is your most memorable concert experience? (as performer and/or audience member)

I’ll never forget the first “real” concert I went to. I think I was about thirteen and the Beaux Arts Trio was playing in a series held at one of the local schools. I was enraptured by the music (especially the Shostakovitch Trio) and nervously went backstage to get their autographs. I was horrified to realize that, program and pen outstretched, I had unwittingly followed Bernard Greenhouse into the bathroom! He was obviously amused by my mortification and mumbled apology, as he took the program from my hand and signed it with a few kind words. The memory of that concert was particularly moving to me some 25 years later as I sat in the chamber hall of the Berlin Philharmonic listening to the Beaux Arts Trio perform my Second Piano Trio as part of their 50th anniversary tour. Greenhouse was no longer the cellist, but Menachem Pressler was still the incredible pianist.

Another indelible concert memory as audience member occurred when I was twenty years old. My conducting teacher, Laszlo Halasz, sent me to Germany with letters of recommendation to several of his colleagues (Wolfgang Sawallisch, Karl Böhm and Wolfgang Wagner, among others) asking them to allow me to audit their rehearsals. When David Diamond heard that I was going to Bayreuth, he asked me to convey his regards to Friedelind Wagner, the granddaughter of Richard Wagner. She fled Germany at the height of the war, denouncing Hitler and became an American citizen. When I arrived in Bayreuth, I phoned her, and she told me to meet her a couple of days later for a rehearsal at the Festspielhaus. This turned out to be the closed television taping of the Chéreau production of Götterdämmerung, conducted by Boulez. Besides Friedelind, myself and conductor Nicholas Braithwaite, there was no audience in the house save for the technical crew that was filming the performance. I had to pinch myself as I found myself in the Wagner family box at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, sitting next to Wagner’s granddaughter and listening to a Wagner opera live for the first time. And Götterdämmerung, at that! Subsequently, Friedelind arranged for me to live in Bayreuth for the rest of the summer, where I did various musical jobs for her: writing notes for programs and cd booklets, and making the piano-vocal reduction of Siegfried Wagner’s last, unpublished opera Die Heilige Linde. Friedelind was a remarkable, intimidatingly intelligent and knowledgeable person, who was a huge influence on my development and remained a long-distance friend until her death.

There have been many memorable concerts for me as composer: the premiere of my 2nd Piano Concerto with Stephen Hough and Rostropovitch conducting the National Symphony; the premieres of my two operas; my ballet Frankenstein at the Royal Ballet, etc. But as a performer, one concert I will never forget was the premiere of my 10th Nocturne, dedicated to the memory of Gian Carlo Menotti (and included on my new recording.) I had met Menotti on a couple of occasions prior to the premiere in Monte-Carlo of my first opera The Picture of Dorian Gray. He was kind, supportive and charming. When Gian Carlo suddenly died in 2007, I got a call from John Mordler, Director of the Monte Carlo Opera, asking if I would write a short piece in his memory to perform at the memorial concert being held that weekend in the opera house. I immediately said yes, but as soon as I hung up the phone I panicked, realizing there just wasn’t enough time to write and learn a brand-new piece. I called John back, and he agreed that I could instead play an appropriate already-written piece. I took a sheaf of music to the piano to choose something, and almost immediately, an idea came to me. In one single three-hour sitting, I wrote the Nocturne. I was scheduled for an evening flight that would have gotten me to Monte-Carlo the morning of the concert with plenty of time to practice and rest. As luck would have it, that flight was cancelled, and I was rebooked on a flight which landed late afternoon. I had to be driven straight from the airport to the opera house for the dress rehearsal, then rushed back to the hotel to shower and change and immediately race back to the opera house for the concert. I hadn’t slept in 24 hours, and by the time it was my turn to perform, I was so exhausted that I didn’t have the energy to be nervous. I don’t think I’ve ever played anything more relaxed or in control and at the end of the piece, after a long silence, there was a disconcerting (considering the occasion) yet gratifying burst of enthusiastic “bravos.” It was a very moving experience!

What do you feel needs to be done to grow and retain classical music audiences?

I don’t think one should condescend to audiences, and I don’t think one should water down programming based on preconceptions about what audiences can handle. In Greece, I was artistic director of a chamber music festival until Covid hit, and I was very uncompromising in my programming: I programmed lengthy, serious programmes with a good amount of contemporary works – all gorgeous music, all pieces I believed in 100%. Some people voiced concern about how the programmes would be received unless some lighter fare was mixed in, because the audiences were not necessarily regular classical concert goers. As it turned out, the concerts were packed, and the audiences loved the programmes. These concerts were held in smaller halls: I’ve always felt it is better to have to turn away people than have a half-empty hall.

I think that one possible cause of some of the problems we’re seeing comes from the fact that a lot of the boards of our performing and educational institutions are populated by executives whose experience lies in the corporate sector rather than the artistic world. This is, naturally, a product of economic realities, but I think there is a real danger that some institutions are being seduced into following corporate ideals of what success is, rather than being led by a strong artistic vision. Artistic vision necessitates leadership by artists. It’s like what often happens when a big company buys out a smaller company that makes an artisanal product and changes the formula for the sake of ease of manufacture and distribution and greater profits. Something very precious can be lost in the eagerness to expand. Classical music has never been profit-making and never will. I think most artists are not motivated by money but by artistic necessity.

I also think that the outsize influence that the media (social and otherwise) exerts is another problem. There are no easy answers. But from my own observation of when artistic environments are the healthiest, it is almost always due to the influence or activism of one or a few energetic, enthusiastic and committed individuals (whether they be artists, teachers or administrators) rather than from any specific policy or formula. One of Ned Rorem’s often quoted statements is something along the lines of “there always has been and always will be 10,000 people who truly care about classical music.” I think there’s a grain of truth in that, and that the urge to constantly increase numbers (reflected in the many overly large concert halls throughout the world) can be ultimately detrimental to the survival of the art form.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

I tell my students never to dictate to others what kind of music they should be listening to, and never let anyone tell you what kind of music you should be writing. Also, to develop their curiosity. In today’s world, I think curiosity is something that needs to be consciously developed and exercised constantly. With the of instantaneousness of informational gratification that the internet provides, it becomes easy to devalue the acquisition and retention of knowledge. If I can look up something instantly, why should I bother remembering it? More and more, I’ve come to believe that the traditional emphasis on memorization in education, something that was already disappearing from the curriculum while I was a student, is crucial. And in the pathetic political dramas playing out all over the globe today, we can see first-hand the disastrous results of short-term memory.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Being busy and being able to put food on the table doing what I am doing.

‘Personal Demons’, Lowell Liebermann’s debut solo piano album, pairs Liebermann’s own music with works that inspire him as a composer. Released on 5 February on the Steinway & Sons label. More information

Lowell Liebermann is one of America’s most frequently performed and recorded living composers. He has written over one hundred thirty works in all genres, several of which have gone on to become standard repertoire for their instruments, such as his Sonata for Flute and Piano and Gargoyles for piano, each of which have been recorded over twenty times on CD.

He has been commissioned by a wide array of ensembles and instrumentalists, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, Emerson Quartet and flutist Sir James Galway. His full-length ballet Frankenstein was co-commissioned by London’s Royal Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet and has been released on Blu-Ray and DVD. Mr. Liebermann has written two full-length operas, both enthusiastically received at their premieres: The Picture of Dorian Gray, the first American opera commissioned and premiered by l’Opéra de Monte-Carlo, and Miss Lonelyhearts, after the novel by Nathanael West, commissioned by the Juilliard School to celebrate its 100th anniversary.

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