Chicago Chamber Musicians provide an illuminating evening with Lowell Liebermann

Thu Dec 08, 2011 at 1:08 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

The Chicago Chamber Musicians presented an evening of Lowell Liebermann’s music Wednesday night at Ganz Hall.

Time is precious, especially at this time of year. Which is why the Chicago Chamber Musicians’ engrossing concert Wednesday evening at Ganz Hall turned out to be a kind of musical gift.

As part of its continuing Composer Perspectives series, CCM invites composers to program an entire evening. They are asked to mix their own music with a work or two by someone else that has influenced them in some way. The result is an in-depth look, a rare chance for music lovers to immerse themselves in a single composer’s musical language.

The focus of Wednesday’s immersion was Lowell Liebermann, a leading American composer with a distinct gift for lyrical melodies spiced with crunchy harmonies.

Liebermann chose his own Trio No 2 for flute, cello and piano from 2004; a song cycle setting six poems by short-story writer Raymond Carver composed in 2002, and a piano quintet from 1990. Ravel’s tempestuous Sonata for violin and cello, a 1922 work that Liebermann discovered as a student, rounded out the mix. Liebermann, who turned 50 this year, was on hand, providing witty, relaxed commentary.

Though Liebermann’s chamber pieces had no programmatic outline, his music is clearly full of passion and drama. (He has written two operas based on iconic novels: Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts.) CCM’s players, joined by guest artists Demarre McGill, flute; baritone John Michael Moore and violinist Matthias Tacke, gave the kind of full-throttle but sensitively shaded performance that composers dream of.

The colors that McGill, cellist Clancy Newman and pianist Meng-Chieh Liu brought to Liebermann’s single-movement Trio No. 2 were sumptuous and varied. Liu’s piano often provided a steady, translucent undercurrent for McGill’s gently wandering flute and Newman’s deeply melancholy cello. In the trio’s slow section, however, the piano’s slow-moving chords took on the craggy texture of a tombstone. In conversation with the pain-filled cello, the flute’s austere line pushed forward with the even tread of a sorrowful, vacant-eyed mourner.

Fury was the dominant mood explored by violinist Jasmine Lin and Newman in Ravel’s Sonata for violin and cello. This is not Ravel as most concertgoers envision him, the man of gentle hues and transparent textures. The two musicians pulled off the miracle of mixing impeccable precision in terms of rhythm and phrasing with hair-raising, raw-boned emotion.

With Liu as his sensitive accompanist, Moore brought a warm, strong baritone and keen theatrical sense to Liebermann’s cycle, Six Songs on Poems by Raymond Carver. Moore was transfixing in “Afghanistan,” a portrait of sensuous love and peaceful countryside. Liu was an equal partner in several of the songs, especially the witty “Music” with its sendup of Liszt and Wagner.

In the piano quintet, the players (Tacke, Lin, violist Rami Solomonow, Newman and Liu) meshed as powerful, deeply introspective single voices as well as colleagues intensely attuned to one another, illuminating every strand of Liebermann’s richly textured music.

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