Thursday 7 August 2014

Two concertos by Peter Lieberson receive fine performances from Scott Yoo and the Odense Symphony Orchestra with pianist, Steven Beck and violist, Roberto Diaz on a new release from Bridge

Peter Lieberson (1946-2011) was born in New York City, the son of ballerina and choreographer Vera Zorina (1917-2003) and Goddard Lieberson (1911-1977), president of Columbia Records. He attended Columbia University studying composition with Milton Babbitt (1916-2011), Charles Wuorinen (b.1938), Donald Martino (1931-2005), and Martin Boykan (b.1931). He later went to Boulder, Colorado to continue his studies with Chögyam Trungp (1939-1987) a, a Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist master.

There he met and married Ellen Kearney,  before moving to Boston, Massachusetts, to co-direct Shambhala Training, a meditation and cultural program. After receiving his PhD from Brandeis University, from 1984 to 1988, Lieberson taught at Harvard University. From 1994, Lieberson devoted his time entirely to composition. He met his second wife, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, in 1997 during the Santa Fe Opera production of his opera Ashoka's Dream. He was living in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the time of his death.

Lieberson’s compositions include his opera Ashoka's Dream (1997), vocal and choral works, orchestral works, chamber works, works for piano and concertos including his Piano Concerto No.3 and Viola Concerto that have just been released on a disc from  Bridge Records as Volume 3 of their Lieberson series.

In this recording Scott Yoo and the Odense Symphony Orchestra are joined by pianist, Steven Beck  and violist, Roberto Diaz

Lieberson’s Piano Concerto No.3 (2003) was written for and dedicated to Peter Serkin as a commission for the centennial of the Minnesota Orchestra who, with Serkin, gave the first performance conducted by Oliver Knussen.

The title of the first movement, Leviathon, relates to the poetry of Pablo Neruda whose verses Lieberson had set before. There is a lovely opening for piano and orchestra, full of wild dissonances that give way to a more extended theme, full of dynamic surges as well as quieter more reflective passages, dramatically juxtaposed. Steven Beck gives this concerto much dynamism and virtuosity, admirably supported by Scott Yoo and the Odense Symphony Orchestra. There is a fine sweep to the music and much in the way of virtuosic intensity for the soloist, with sudden dramatic twists and turns. Later there is a quieter passage but soon the music is allowed to grow back to the driving force of the opening. Toward the end there is a hushed section for piano and shimmering strings that leads to an unexpectedly quiet coda.

The piano opens Canticle, almost immediately joined by a sumptuous orchestra. Soon the piano picks out a theme, serial in nature, against this gentle orchestral. Though the theme has serialist intervals there is a leisurely, even languid beauty here as well as some attractive orchestral textures. Slowly the soloist becomes more insistent, occasionally percussive, with timpani quietly underlining the music, adding tension. Part way through, the music quietens with lovely string sweeps of sound and fine woodwind passages. Timpani drive the music forward in sweeps but the quieter mood returns with percussion occasionally quietly underpinning the orchestra. An oboe joins to lead, with piano and orchestra, to the quiet coda.

Sharp attacking chords from the piano with a dynamic orchestra open the Rondo. The languid mood returns periodically but, in this Rondo, it is the music’s more dynamic nature that is predominant with the music jumping around wildly before building in dynamics. There is a brief slow section for piano and hushed orchestra but the music soon builds again for the decisive coda.

This is an impressive concerto that holds the attention. It receives a very fine performance from Steven Beck with the Odense Symphony Orchestra under Scott Yoo.

The Viola Concerto (1992/2003) was composed as a relaxation after the trials and tribulations of writing his music theatre piece, King Gesar (1991) which had created a crisis of artistic confidence. This resulted in the composition of a concerto that was much freer in nature, wrought through the composer’s love of the instrument.

A brass chord opens Rhapsody as the soloist, Roberto Diaz, immediately enters, drawing some fine textures and colours from his instrument as the theme rhapsodises around.  There is some lovely blending of timbres between the soloist and orchestra in music that sounds more feely tonal than purely serial. The music rises to a buoyant climax for orchestra before a cadenza, finely played by this soloist who extracts some fine timbres from his viola. There are some magical combinations of textures from the soloist and orchestra as the music heads for the hushed coda.

The Scherzo has an insistent toccata theme taken by the viola and orchestra. Soon the orchestra develops a longer breathed theme whilst the viola keeps the insistent, toccata motif, the viola later taking the longer theme which the orchestra responds to. Eventually the insistent, toccata theme returns before various sections of the orchestra take the theme, keeping a melodic element. The viola takes the theme before leading to another cadenza to which the orchestra soon joins as the music leads on energetically toward the coda. There are, nevertheless, moments of reflection before the hushed coda.

There is a gentle, calm, sonorous, rather melancholy woodwind opening to the Adagio, Allegro in which the rest of the orchestra joins. When the soloist enters it is in a wistful melody that becomes increasingly impassioned before reaching an orchestral climax. After a gentle woodwind section, the soloist returns higher and more ethereal, with a distant, melancholy wistfulness before falling to a hush. The viola rises up in a short solo passage soon joined by the orchestra as they rapidly move forward in a broader melody still with the toccata element apparent as we are led to the buoyant coda.

Liebeson knew how to draw the best in timbres and textures and darker sounds from the viola in this striking concerto. Roberto Diaz does a terrific job, extremely well supported by Scott Yoo and the Odense Symphony Orchestra.

Both recordings from the Carl Nielsen Hall, Odense, Denmark are excellent and there are informative booklet notes. This new release will, I am sure, draw many new followers to Lieberson’s music.

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