Anticipation builds for the world premiere of Liebermann's Second Flute Concerto

A Chicago moment for composer Lowell Liebermann

Lowell Liebermann is having something of a Chicago moment.

In October, the Joffrey Ballet presented the regional premiere of Liam Scarlett’s 2016 adaptation of Mary Shelley’s famous 1818 novel, Frankenstein, featuring what a Sun-Times critic described as a “rich, atmospheric, almost cinematic score” by the New York composer.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra will follow that up March 21-24 with the world premiere of his Flute Concerto No. 2, spotlighting the ensemble’s principal flute, Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson, as soloist.

“This was a very nice happenstance that these two things were scheduled so close to each other,” Liebermann said.

The composer got to know Höskuldsson when the latter was principal flute of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York in 2008-16. “I think he’s in the handful of absolutely top flutists in the world,” Liebermann said. “He’s an amazing flutist and an amazing musician and just a really terrific person.”

After performing the 2012 premiere of the composer’s Air for Flute and Orchestra in New York’s Carnegie Hall, Höskuldsson floated the idea of Liebermann someday writing a second flute concerto. “So, when he approached me with this commission for Chicago, I jumped at it, of course,” the composer said.

Beyond describing the new concerto as a three-movement work designed to show the full range of what a flute can do, Liebermann was reluctant to say much more about the work. “It’s funny,” he said, “when people ask me to describe my music, it’s kind of a trite answer, but I often say, ‘Well, if I could put it into words, I wouldn’t have to write the music to begin with.”

This will be the second premiere of a new work by Lowell Liebermann for Stefán Ragnar Höskuldsson, the CSO's principal flute.

Liebermann, 62, has written more than 140 works in an array of forms, including opera and, of course, dance. “I do appreciate variety as a composer,” he said, “and I like to write for different combinations than I [already] have. It’s very rare that I’ll write for the same instrumental combination back-to-back.”

Among his most recent creations is his Organ Concerto, which famed soloist Paul Jacobs and the Jacksonville (Florida) Symphony debuted in September 2023. The work was jointly commissioned by that ensemble and the Oregon Bach Festival.  “That went terrifically well,” Liebermann said. “That was a wonderful experience, and that was a case where that was a piece that I would have liked to write many years before, but it was only then that a commission came up for it.”

The composer is particularly known for his flute works, a phenomenon he attributes to the instrumental world’s enthusiasm for new music. Two of his most recorded creations were written for the instrument — the Sonata for Flute and Piano (1987) and Concerto for Flute and Orchestra (1992). 

It has helped that one of the world’s most famous flutists, James Galway, started playing Liebermann’s first work for the instrument, the Sonata, significantly boosting its profile. The soloist then commissioned two works for the instrument — the Concerto for Flute and Orchestra and Concerto for Flute, Harp and Orchestra (1995) — as well as the Concerto for Piccolo and Orchestra (1996).

“Once you start getting known in the flute world, they don’t let go of you,” the composer said. “So, a lot of commissions have come over the years for flute.”

Like other composers, Liebermann hopes any new concerto he writes will become one of the regularly performed works in the form like John Corigliano’s Clarinet Concerto (1977). It is now a mainstay like other standards for the combination by such historical composers as Aaron Copland, Carl Maria von Weber, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Carl Nielsen.

Much the same has happened with Liebermann’s Flute Concerto. “It gets dozens of performances a year and really has become probably the most performed American flute concerto,” he said.

Indeed, the work has been so successful that writing a second flute concerto proved a little intimidating at first. Liebermann found himself thinking: “Gosh, what if I don’t write a piece that’s as good as the first one?”

To overcome such doubts, the composer did his best to set aside any thoughts of his First Flute Concerto and just plunge into work on the second. “Once you start writing a new piece and you are involved with those musical materials, everything else disappears,” he said. “It didn’t turn out to be that much of a problem.”

Because of the composer’s connection to the flute and the popularity of his works for the instrument, he said, some notables in that world are expected to attend the CSO debut weekend, including Galway and his wife, Jeanne, who is also a flutist. “The flute world has really taken notice of this premiere,” he said.

From 1979 through 1987, Liebermann, 62, was a student at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School, successively attaining his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. During that time, atonalism, which had a choke hold on the new-music world in the previous couple of decades, still held sway.

“So, there was a big kind of prejudice in certain new music circles against tonal music,” he said. “My own music is not always tonal — I use a mixture of different techniques as they suit me — but there were years where I felt I was really going against the tide and writing in a way that wasn’t necessarily accepted by the academic mainstream.”

As a young composer, Liebermann was influenced by such past masters as J.S. Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Ferrucio Busoni, as well as three giants from the 20th century who all wrote in distinctive yet predominantly tonal styles — Benjamin Britten, Aaron Copland, and Dmitri Shostakovich. “Those were the three composers I really looked up to as a student,” he said.

The music world has changed “drastically” since those days when atonalism reigned supreme, said Liebermann, who since 2012 has been on the faculty of New York’s Mannes School of Music, where many of his students write unabashedly tonal music.

“They are actually writing in all styles,” he said, “and I would think that is the defining thing about today, that really almost anything goes, and there is no lingua franca in contemporary music.”