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Described as one of the most frequently commissioned and performed of living American composers, Liebermann was a student of Vincent Persichetti and David Diamond at New York’s Juilliard School of Music, and has been championed for some years by various musicians, including the renowned flautist Sir James Galway. Liebermann’s Concerto for Flute and Orchestra, Op 39, completed in 1992, was composed at the request of Galway, and was first performed on 6 November the same year in St Louis, Missouri with Galway as soloist and Leonard Slatkin conducting the Saint Louis Symphony.
The flute concerto was not the first solo work that Liebermann had written for the instrument, the year 1987 seeing a Sonata for Flute and Piano (Op 23), while a Sonata for Flute and Guitar (Op 25) was completed by Liebermann in the following year. The Op 23 sonata and the later concerto are largely regarded as two of the most significant contributions to the flute repertoire in the late-twentieth century; indeed on its publication the Op 39 concerto was awarded the prize of the ‘Best Newly Published Flute Work’ by America’s National Flute Association in 1994 and, at the time of writing, recordings of the sonata number over twenty. Performances of both the sonata and concerto are also frequent, with further additions to the flute repertoire by Liebermann confirming him as a particular favourite of flautists across the globe.
Liebermann’s personal musical style is overtly tonal, which allows his compositions to be approachable and comprehensible to the general listener as well to performers. As a composer he doesn’t follow particular current trends and styles, preferring to employ largely Romantic and post-Romantic qualities within a particular contemporary American idiom. In composing for particular instruments Liebermann normally doesn’t write music or adapt his writing style with any particular performer in mind stating ‘whenever I write a piece, I always write for my imagined ideal performer”. However, Galway provided an exception to this rule, Liebermann saying “he has such an incredible sound and such incredible low notes that I did emphasize a lot of that […] He can do anything on the instrument, so I wasn’t afraid to write anything’. In being appealing to many and largely tonal, Liebermann avoids overall simplicity, and in writing for his ‘imagined ideal performer’ he creates technically exacting and challenging works.
The Concerto for Flute and Orchestra is in a traditional three-movement classical concerto format, with a Moderato first movement, a Molto adagio second movement and a closing Presto. In further discussing his compositional processes Liebermann describes how ‘I like the overall large form of the work to develop out of the smallest idea or seed that you’re working with’, a trait exemplified by the opening Moderato movement of the flute concerto, which is based around the opening repetitive theme heard in the strings. The various qualities of the flute are explored in the variations that follow the main lyrical flute theme; the flute writing becomes increasingly involved and elaborate as the movement develops, interrupted only by calmer brass chorale sections. At the end of the movement the recapitulation indicates the influence of sonata form, although with the main theme now stated by the strings while the flute presents a highly decorated line above.
The second movement of the concerto explores the lyrical and delicately translucent characteristics of the flute. Persistent and gentle string chords accompany the introduction of a whispered statement of the main theme of the movement, which is presented at various points in a serene and restful manner and at others euphoric, building towards the climax at the close of the movement. The almost relentless and often demanding final movement, Presto, has been described by Liebermann as ‘a virtuoso workout for the flutist in a rondo-like form which closes with a prestissimo coda’.
from notes by Adam Binks © 2010