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Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival -- Poetic inspiration: Lowell Liebermann

August 1, 2014

By Bill Kohlhaase, The Santa Fe New Mexican

Aug. 01--Lowell Liebermann is a most literate composer. Both of his operas, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Miss Lonelyhearts (with a libretto by poet J.D. McClatchy), have a bookish pedigree. The second movement of his Concerto No. 1 for Piano and Orchestra was inspired by Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater. His Symphony No. 2 contains text from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. His Four Seasons, a work co-commissioned by the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and set to be performed in Albuquerque on Wednesday, Aug. 6, and in Santa Fe on Thursday, Aug. 7 (with a preconcert lecture by Liebermann and composer Marc Neikrug), takes its inspiration from poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.

"When I have a commission for a song cycle," Liebermann explained from Aspen, Colorado, where his opera based on the story by Oscar Wilde was being produced, "I first decide on the text. I have quite a large library of poetry and I just go there and go through poetry. I picked up Edna St. Vincent Millay -- we share the same birthday -- and realized I'd never set any of her poetry to music. I thought of her sonnet ("I know I am but summer to your heart") and found that it was in the public domain, which was perfect because I didn't have enough time to get permissions. So I went through all of her poetry and selected all of the poems that I wanted and began setting them to music. Then I began looking for a common thread that would tie them all into a cycle."

Liebermann can't explain his method for finding appropriate text for his music. "I couldn't tell you exactly why it works, but I know immediately when looking at a poem if I can set it to music. In doing the actual setting, I try to be faithful to the poet's intentions. Some of my favorite poems I could never imagine setting to music. They're too complete. There has to be room within the words for the music to add something. Not that the poems are incomplete in themselves. But some are so complete, so tight, I can never imagine them being complemented by music."

There was another inspiration for the music in Four Seasons: mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, who performs the piece in Santa Fe. "I wanted to showcase the warmth and beauty of her voice. The poems cover a broad range and can be very emotional. I knew she could handle that. I wrote the piece specifically for her."

Liebermann's interest in literature comes naturally. "I don't have a degree. But I've always read a lot, since I was a kid. I really don't have much formal literature training after high school. I read when I can." The idea that words can lift music and music can lift words seems to him the heart of the matter. "Music can be a very abstract thing. It's not just about the notes. And words can give the music extra content, a contextual content."

Liebermann's music, often described as moody and even dark, is accessible even at its most detailed. "That darkness thing, it's very strange and seems to have taken on a life of its own. I do have lighter pieces, and I like to think that I'm not a dark composer. This song cycle, one of the pieces is darker, but dark and beautiful in an emotional way." The accessibility comes from a sort of lyricism that makes listeners follow. "When one says lyricism, one is referring to melody. Some composers aren't interested in melody. But I've always been interested in melody. A piece that's melodic could be tonal or atonal, but it can still have a melody. It's important to me that there's always a thread weaving its way through my music."

Liebermann's best-known works include pieces for flute, some commissioned by James Galway (he has also written for piccolo). More recently, his chorale music has gained attention. Earlier this year, the American Academy of Arts and Letters gave him the inaugural Virgil Thomson Award, recognizing a composer of vocal works. Voice is central to his other poetry-inspired cycles, including Six Songs on Poems by Raymond Carver for baritone and piano and Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening for bass-baritone and piano. When does he find time for reading, let alone writing? "I'd like to know how I find the time to write," he chuckled. "Here I am in Aspen, sitting by the pool and being treated very nicely. One has to make time, one has to be disciplined. I'm currently working on a clarinet concerto that's been commissioned and I'm getting closer to deadline. Finding time. That's a problem."


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Source: Santa Fe New Mexican, The (NM)

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