Lowell Liebermann: Gargoyles, Op. 29 Pianist – Yuja Wang

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

Lowell Liebermann (photo: Christian Steiner)

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.

Joseph Stevenson

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

Published in: on March 31, 2017 at 4:29 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Concert Review: Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall

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Yuja Wang and Leonidas Kavakos at the post-concert reception, Feb. 10, 2017.

Earlier this month, Leonidas Kavakos and Yuja Wang gave their first joint appearance in Seattle in a recital that will long be remembered by those fortunate enough to attend.  Their recital happened to fall on Ms. Wang’s birthday, but it was the audience that received a present: a program of music that, while by no means esoteric, was certainly lesser known, and just as certain to expand and enrich the musical lives of everyone in attendance.

I had lingering reservations about attending this recital, reservations that had nothing to do with the program or with Leonidas Kavakos, whom I had heard perform with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in 2006, and whom I featured on this blog two years ago in a performance of the Korngold violin concerto.  My concerns were related solely to Yuja Wang, who, while she possesses a virtuoso technique, seems often in her programs to emphasize style over substance, and whose attire seems inevitably to distract the viewer from the music and overshadow her musicianship.  For an in-depth discussion of the style vs. substance dichotomy as it relates to Ms. Wang, I refer the reader to this article from the Sept. 5, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.

My concerns about Ms. Wang’s attire vanished the moment she appeared on stage, wearing an elegant, floor-length, off-white gown that would have passed muster in even the most conservative of concert settings.  Relieved that I would be able to focus all my attention on the music, I settled back to enjoy the first piece on the program: the Violin Sonata by Leoš Janáček.  This is an exceptionally passionate work, one that both challenges and rewards the listener.  The second movement is especially tender, and was the high point of the sonata for me.  Mr. Kavakos and Ms. Wang clearly see themselves as servants of the music, and surely won many new friends for Janáček with this performance.

After the passion of the Janáček, I was grateful for the peaceful opening of Schubert’s Fantasie in C major.  In the playful second movement, Wang and Kavakos demonstrated ensemble playing of the highest order.  The song-like third movement reminded us once again of Schubert’s unsurpassed gift for melody, and filled the concert hall with the same spiritual ambiance one might feel in a cathedral.  Despite the diverse character of the four sections of the last movement, it felt unified from beginning to end, and the main theme of the Allegro vivace conveyed a surpassing joy.

The second half of the program began with Debussy’s Violin Sonata in G minor.  Composed in 1917, this sonata was Debussy’s final major work.  Unlike the other pieces on the program, all of which deserve a wider audience, this sonata has been a staple of the violinist’s repertoire from the beginning.  When Ms. Wang played the two soft chords with which it begins, and which carried beautifully all the way to my seat in the third tier, I was struck at once with the thought, “What a touch!”  Later, reflecting on the performance as a whole, I noted, “Just wonderful playing!”

The final work on the program was Bartok’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in C-sharp minor.  This sonata was composed in 1921, and I cannot hear it except as a reaction to the horrors of World War I.  The first movement, marked allegro appassionato, burns white-hot from the very first notes.  Both players need a huge technique to carry off this piece.  The second movement, adagio, conveys utter desolation.  All is lost.  Kavakos and Wang adopted a more relaxed tempo in this movement than one sometimes hears, which added to the sense of desolation.  The third movement, marked allegro, is simply breathtaking: a 19th century friska in 20th century garb, building to an overpowering climax as it speeds to the finish.

The effect was overwhelming.  The audience loved it, and gave Kavakos and Wang an enthusiastic standing ovation.  In return, they gave us one encore, the graceful Andantino from Schubert’s Violin Sonata in A Major, D. 574, which, coming after the Bartok, may have been as necessary (for audience and performers alike) as cooling out a horse after a race.

All in all, it was an extraordinary recital, notable both for the artistry of the performers and the seriousness of the program.  There were no Kreisler transcriptions, no Carmen Fantasy.  Even the encore was not your typical crowd-pleaser.  There were no lollipops anywhere.  Instead, Kavakos and Wang gave us a four-course feast for the musical soul.  I look forward to their next appearance here.

Derrick Robinson

Published in: on February 28, 2017 at 11:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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