Very early in the verbal-fight-club spirit of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Martha tries to bring down her pretentious husband George with a one-word barb: “Phrasemaker!” Being hopelessly drunk at the time (as she is for the entire three-act play), she fails miserably; but I could not avoid thinking about her while listening to the third volume in a series of recordings of the music of Peter Lieberson released by Bridge Records at the beginning of last month. There is so much self-indulgent phrasemaking in the booklet essay by Matthew Mendez that it is hard to tell whether or not Lieberson’s music is guilty of the same sin.
It is hard for me to avoid taking a personal perspective on Lieberson’s work. While our backgrounds are significantly different, I was born in the same year he was. We both grew up along that stretch of the East Coast for which the word “megalopolis” was first coined; and, by the time I was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, I was accustomed to thinking of my “concert-going space” as stretching from Washington to Boston.
Before then, however, the study of music (and, particularly, the relationship between theory and practice) was going through some disruptively agonizing growth pains. By the time both of us had completed our undergraduate studies, Harold Bloom was pulling together his thoughts for his book The Anxiety of Influence; and it seemed as if the influence of past traditions of music-making had become the great bête noire of modernist composers and theorists. Everyone was struggling to make sense of Milton Babbitt, for whom a finite permutation group seemed to carry more significance than a perfect cadence.
Ironically, influence figured in the one Lieberson composition I have thus far heard in concert. This was in January of 2010, when cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax gave the world premiere of his “Remembering Schumann,” which, in many respects, came off as “influence without anxiety.” This turned out to be late in Lieberson’s short life; he had a few months more than a year to live at the time. Beyond the music, however, was this intimidating sense of pedigree, since this relatively short piece had been jointly commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall, Het Concertgebouw Amsterdam, and the Barbican Centre in London.
The two concertos on this new Bridge album, the third piano concerto and the viola concerto, both predate “Remembering Schumann.” They are also both much longer: major three-movement compositions. Yet both of them seem to be intensely exerted efforts of thickly concealed influence, as if any recognizably acknowledgement of the past amounted to a cardinal sin of some prevailing modernist aesthetic. (Perhaps I should say “East Coast modernist aesthetic.” John Adams never had any problems with revealing his influences, not to mention celebrating them. I suspect that is why “Grand Pianola Music” received such a hostile reception at its first performance in New York.)
Thus, both of these concertos present the listener with the efforts of an unquestionably keen intellect. However, while there are many modernists who endured the same cerebral approach to teaching music that Lieberson did and emerged with enough wit (sometimes self-effacing) to seize and to sustain the attention of the curious listener, Lieberson’s concertos give the impression of being all abstract ideas and nothing more. Now, as some of us have discovered with composers such as Anton Webern (and even, I might add, Milton Babbitt), a suitably accomplished performer can still find a valid rhetorical stance to all of that abstraction to engage a mind intent on serious listening. Sadly, Ma and Ax never quite got there with “Remembering Schumann,” perhaps because they were still figuring out how to get their hands around the notes. The same can be said for these concerto performances with Scott Yoo conducting the Odense Symphony Orchestra and soloists Steven Beck on piano and Roberto Diaz on viola.
On the other hand, in the sprit of the Israelites wandering around in the Sinai wilderness before returning to their homeland, it took the emergence of a new generation of music-makers before Webern could be approached more as elegantly expressive music and less as ingeniously contrived mathematics; I would like to hope that a future generation will tease the music out of Lieberson’s scores, because I think that the music really is there.