Back to The Future

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The bespectacled, tweedy Lowell Liebermann seemed staggered by the sight and sound of his first standing ovation, Texas-style. Andrew Litton and the Dallas Symphony had just premiered his Second Symphony, and the first-nighters earlier this month jumped to their feet and shouted with understandable delight. Now brazen and glittering, now radiantly visionary, the Liebermann Second, a resplendent choral symphony based on the poetry of Walt Whitman, is the work of a composer unafraid of grand gestures and openhearted lyricism. Says conductor Litton, who picked Liebermann, 39, as the orchestra's composer-in-residence: "Lowell is proving that new classical music doesn't have to be Brussels sprouts--it can also be steak."

A former prodigy from New York City who produced his Op. 1, a piano sonata, at 15, Liebermann is one of the New Tonalists, a group of composers who have turned their back on the hard-edged, complicated avant-garde sounds that dominated the American new-music scene after World War II. Unlike such devotees of dissonance as Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter, they happily embrace traditional tonality, the harmonic language of most Western music, from Bach to rock. "I don't believe in the cliche that art has to reflect its times--that since we're living in a horrible age, our music has to rub your face in it," says Liebermann.

The stranglehold of the "complexity boys" (as critic-composer Virgil Thomson called them) was challenged by such older American tonalists as David Diamond and Ned Rorem and weakened in the '80s by the deliberately repetitive music of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. But minimalism has proved too simple-minded to satisfy serious listeners hungry for accessible yet challenging new scores. Liebermann, Daniel Asia, Jorge Martin, Paul Moravec and George Tsontakis were among the first younger composers to snub its stuttering chatter in favor of a full-blooded style that is at once unmistakably contemporary (Liebermann, for instance, was influenced by the great 20th century Russian symphonist Dmitri Shostakovich) and rooted in the techniques of the past.

Emotional directness is the hallmark of the New Tonalism. "Musically, I say what I mean and mean what I say," explains Moravec. "The irony in my music is not glibly postmodern but rather the essence of making audible the human experience of ambiguity." Though Liebermann employs all the tools of the up-to-the-second composer--he even has a website, too is quick to spurn the cheap irony of such trendy postmodernists as Britain's Thomas Ades (Powder Her Face). "We live in a sarcastic age," Liebermann says with a shrug. "A lot of intellectuals are uncomfortable with genuineness."

Performers take to New Tonalist pieces like pols to an open mike, but many critics bristle at the pieces' crowd-pleasing traditionalism. An unsympathetic Dallas reviewer brushed off Liebermann's unabashedly tuneful Second as "excruciatingly conventional." Retorts the composer: "That's like criticizing a novelist because his grammar is correct."

Liebermann's other works include a thrilling operatic version of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, premiered in the U.S. last year by Milwaukee's Florentine Opera. Liebermann is also a master of the fine art of writing knockout showpieces for world-class soloists. He takes the baton on two CDs devoted to his concertos, the first featuring superstar flutist James Galway (RCA), the second with English piano virtuoso Stephen Hough (Hyperion). Liebermann's Second Piano Concerto, raves Hough, is a "combination of brain and heart."

If the New Tonalists had a credo, it might be the lines of Whitman set by Liebermann in his Second Symphony: "Sing to my soul, renew its faith and hope ... give me some vision of the future." Their confident vision of the future of American classical music is on display all this season, giving concertgoers and record buyers who are tired of warmed-over Brussels sprouts more reasons for standing ovations. Last November, Moravec's electrifying Mood Swings premiered in New York City, and three more New York premieres follow this May--Tsontakis' Ghost Variations for piano, Martin's song cycle The Glass Hammer and Liebermann's Trumpet Concerto. Just out from Summit Records is The Symphonic Works of Daniel Asia: At the Far Edge, and Delos is releasing a live recording of the Liebermann Second this fall. "Of course there's a backlash from the Old Guard," Liebermann says, "but the tide is finally turning." About time, too.