Contrasting Composers Define a Great Divide

Many labels have been attached to American composers (post-serial, postmodern, neoclassical, neo-Romantic, maximalist, minimalist and so on), but I prefer to divide them into two groups: the troubadours and the transcendentalists. The former have their feet on the ground; they’re rooted in well-fertilized, well-trod soil. The latter have their heads in the clouds; their business is to discover previously unseen musical vistas.

What unites each group is not so much style as disposition. The troubadours comment: They sing of what we know. The transcendentalists speculate: They sing of things scarcely fathomable. Among the grounded are George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter and John Corigliano. Among the dreamers are Charles Ives, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Philip Glass and John Adams.

Recently, a pair of back-to-back concerts seemed scheduled to illustrate the difference between the two camps. The troubadour was John Musto, whose song cycle Penelope was presented by the New York Festival of Song (NYFOS) at Merkin Hall. The transcendentalist was Peter Lieberson, whose Red Garuda, a piano concerto of sorts, was performed at Avery Fisher Hall by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by James Conlon, with Peter Serkin as soloist.

Mr. Musto, who is 50, has described himself as a “self-taught composer [but] not a self-taught musician.” He grew up in New York and studied piano at the Manhattan School of Music. He says that he “really learned to write music by playing it.” He adds: “The very act of learning to play a piece of music is to rethink it with the composer, retrace his footsteps (finger-steps) and then, in the best performances, recompose it onstage.”

I’ve heard Mr. Musto in concert, and I don’t know of any full-time composer today who plays the piano with greater panache. In this respect, and others, he resembles arch-troubadour Leonard Bernstein. An unashamed eclectic, Mr. Musto is a recomposer par excellence. His grandly jazzy Passacaglia for large orchestra (2003) sounds like Bach rediscovered by Krazy Kat. His Five Piano Rags (1995) cast the smoky nonchalance of Scott Joplin in a Rachmaninoff glow. His opera Volpone, which had an acclaimed premiere at the Wolf Trap Festival last March, employs everything from Broadway to bel canto in a ferociously clever musical adaptation of Ben Jonson’s play. Like Bernstein, Mr. Musto is not afraid to entertain.

His Penelope (2000), a modern take on the Odyssey from the point of view of the wandering hero’s home-alone wife, provided the most enlivening entertainment in an uncharacteristically bumpy NYFOS evening. The organization’s indispensable impresario, pianist and musicologist, Stephen Blier, had devised a program devoted to songs inspired by Greek myths and poems. As usual, he’d come up with wonderful finds culled from a broad assortment of songwriters (Schubert, Carl Loewe, Hugo Wolf, Gabriel Fauré, Dvorák, Ravel and various 20th-century Greek composers) and an appealing, rising young singer-in this case, a tenor of Greek descent and unaffected charm named Dimitri Pittas. Unfortunately, the program’s first half was slowed to a crawl by the excruciating mugging of the baritone John Hancock in the Schubert and the Dvorák selections, and by an excess of explanatory erudition on the part of Mr. Blier, whose off-the-cuff commentaries-so beloved by NYFOS regulars-for the most part restated what he’d eloquently written in the program notes.

After the intermission, Mr. Musto and the soprano of the evening, Amy Burton (who is also Mr. Musto’s wife) took the stage, and everything clicked. In seven settings of wistful, witty lyrics by Denise Lanctot, the cycle demonstrated that, despite Penelope’s isolation, her memories and longings could be as far-ranging as her husband’s worldly peregrinations. Mr. Musto’s vocal lines may lack a distinctive profile (their spacey angularity brings Ned Rorem to mind; the moments of rhythmic patter, Stephen Sondheim), but the pianistic writing is gorgeous, by turns sly and spare, like a “walking” Earl Hines, or madly iridescent, as when Penelope thinks back on a kiss long, long ago in a most un-Grecian snowfall.

The cycle’s closing song, “Don’t Hurry Home, Love,” was a sneaky stunner-a bluesy barcarolle in which Penelope luxuriates in the freedom of solitude. I would have liked more sensuous coloring than Ms. Burton’s bright, hard soprano was capable of, but she sang with languorous authority, and Mr. Musto was irresistible at the keyboard, recomposing himself-and all those musical ghosts-with glee.

Peter Lieberson, who is 58, would seem to be a troubadour by birthright. His father was Goddard Lieberson, a composer better known as the longtime head of Columbia Records, who pioneered the original-cast recording of Broadway musicals. His mother was the noted ballerina Vera Zorina (who’d once been married to George Balanchine). At Columbia University, young Peter was thoroughly schooled in the musical gospel of the day, 12-tone serialism, as preached by two formidable mentors, Milton Babbitt and Charles Wuorinen; he has described the musical world he lived in then as “hermetic-sealed and self-secret.”

In the early 1970′s, he encountered an unsealed world. Through his study of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, he learned how to be free-not by rejecting everything he had worked so hard to master, but by putting all of that disciplined study to more expressive use. In an article about his intellectual and spiritual journey, he wrote:

“I began to regard techniques not as concepts that prevent genuine musical expression but as passports to different worlds of experience. I began to play with the techniques my musical teachers had shown me. I threw them around and threw them out, and like boomerangs they would return. I used them in different ways, looking at them from inside and outside. They became like putty, reshaping and reforming for each new piece.”

Mr. Lieberson’s Piano Concerto, which was given its premiere in 1983 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra with Peter Serkin as soloist, was his breakthrough piece. It was recorded on the New World label, and when I recently heard it again, I was struck by its powerfully woven “worlds of experience”-explosiveness that becomes spaciously calm, rhapsodic lyricism that dissipates into spark-filled outbursts. I heard grand gestures and rich textures of the great Romantic piano concertos; from the piano I heard the delicacy of Chopin, the punch of Bartók, the spikiness of Schoenberg. Underlying the whole scheme, according to Mr. Lieberson, are the Buddhist principles of “Heaven, Earth, and Man.” Yet any religious or personal agenda was subsumed by the sweep of musical events. A clean, purifying wind blows through this encyclopedically knowledgeable score.

In the years since then, Mr. Lieberson-who lives in Santa Fe with his wife, the great mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson-has become even more expansively playful. Red Garuda is one of his most exhilarating pieces. Typically, it has a program derived from Eastern thought: Garuda is the Hindu king of the birds, the carrier of the god Vishnu. The 25-minute work opens with a shimmering bird’s-eye view of a new world awakening. Swiftly, with dazzling clarity, it all unfolds: massive cliffs of huge orchestral sound; elemental storms of brass; sweet meadows in the strings; skittering flocks of woodwinds; fabulous sunbursts-all densely packed yet surprisingly airy and elegantly articulated, like an Indian miniature painting. In the Friday-morning performance I attended, the New York Philharmonic was fully alive to Mr. Conlon’s command of the score’s scintillation; Mr. Serkin, who clearly adores his old friend’s music, played the vigorously complementary piano part with incisive brilliance.

There’s nothing misty-eyed about Mr. Lieberson’s devotion to Eastern beliefs. His grounding in New York modernism is as solid as ever, but he works out of a spirit of adventure that seems primordial. Hindu mythology tells us, in one account, “that as soon as Garuda was born, his body expanded and touched the sky; his eyes were like lightning; the mountains trembled with the spread of his wings.” Mr. Lieberson’s music, too, touches the sky.