There is good and bad music of all kinds being written at all times, and the musical fascists that would impose their own stylistic prejudices on the public are the people who are striking a real blow to the health of our musical culture. – Lowell Liebermann
After attending the concert given by Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang in Seattle last month, (you can read my review here) I spent some time exploring the many videos of Yuja Wang available online. I discovered many I hadn’t seen before, and was especially taken with her performance of “Gargoyles” by Lowell Liebermann. I had never heard of Liebermann, and was singularly happy to discover a contemporary composer whose music I really liked, an enthusiasm I think you will share after watching the video below.
The following biographical sketch of Liebermann and description of Gargoyles were written by Joseph Stevenson for allmusic.com.
Gargoyles is a colorful and engaging set of four piano pieces resembling concert etudes by one of America’s most promising young composers of its day. He has since gone on to fulfill that promise. Lowell Liebermann was born on George Washington’s birthday (February 22) in 1961 in New York City. He began studying piano at eight and composition at 14, and received his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from the Juilliard School of Music. His composition teachers included David Diamond and Vincent Persichetti. He wrote this piano set two years after finishing his doctorate. In the 1990s he went on to write acclaimed symphonies and concertos for such soloists as flutist James Galway and Stephen Hough. He is among the generation of American composers who left the old twelve-tone system behind and rediscovered the vitality of an extended use of tonality, freely using all the chromatic notes but generally remaining in contact with a sense of tonal center.
As a longtime devotee of art and architecture, Liebermann joins many in being bemused by gargoyles, the representations of fantastic monsters that often embellish churches and other old buildings and are said to have been placed there to scare away evil spirits. The title “Gargoyles” refers to the general mood of the set — which is eerie and mysterious throughout and often scary and threatening — but the individual pieces do not depict any particular real or imagined gargoyles. The piano style is rather similar to that of Sergei Prokofiev, although the harmonies are a bit more densely chromatic. Altogether the piece runs about ten minutes.
The first movement, Presto, is a devilish work at rapid speed with wide leaps, double notes, and quick, disorienting changes in touch and loudness. The whole effect is unsettled. The following Adagio semplice, ma con molto rubato, is a very Romantic piece in mood (though the harmonies remain more modern), with repeated figures in the bass and a legato melody in octaves. Even more flowing and beautiful is the third movement, Allegro moderato. Here a melody is embedded in a flowing, wave-like figure that both hands share. The finale is another movement at a flat-out tempo, Presto feroce. It is ferocious, a taxing and grotesque dance in the venerable Italian tarantella rhythm.
When I first heard this piece, I was struck primarily by its technical demands, and by the seemingly effortless way in which Yuja Wang surmounts them. There’s something almost nonchalant about her virtuosity. (If I were a pianist, I might say, “unfair”.) With each successive hearing, Gargoyles feels more unified to me, and I become aware of different aspects of its structure. I’m looking forward to listening to more of Liebermann’s work, much of which is available on YouTube.
If you would like to know more about Lowell Liebermann, I encourage you to watch this interview with him, hosted by Zsolt Bognár for Living the Classical Life. You may also want to read this fascinating essay from newmusicbox.org. In it, Liebermann talks at length about his own music and influences, as well as the state of contemporary classical music.
The following video is taken from an April 2013 recital in Tokyo’s Toppan Hall. The tempo markings and start times of the four movements are as follows:
0:18 I. Presto
2:00 II. Adagio semplice, ma con molto rubato
4:24 III. Allegro moderato
6:45 IV. Presto feroce