Peter Lieberson (b. 1946) and Peter Serkin are proof of the importance of the relationship between composers and performers in contemporary classical music. In 1983, Serkin gave the world premiere of Lieberson's first Piano Concerto, the work that established the composer as an important new voice in American music. The concerto was a commission from the Boston Symphony and its then-Music Director, Seiji Ozawa.
Eighteen years later, Serkin rejoined Ozawa and the BSO to premiere Lieberson's Red Garuda, a work that is effectively the composer's second piano concerto. Like its predecessor, Red Garuda was a BSO commission. The work combines the modernist and serial composition techniques and the colorful orchestration that Lieberson favors with his long-time interest in Tibetan Buddhism and, more generally, Asian mythology. Lieberson studied Tibetan Buddhism intensively between 1976 and 1981, and several of his works reflect this, including his operas King Gesar, based on a Tibetan legend, and Ashoka's Dream, drawn from Indian history. Red Garuda also has its roots in Asia. Prior to the work's October 1999 premiere, Lieberson described its program as follows:
"The idea behind my second piano concerto was inspired by the Eastern mythological creature called the red garuda. The red garuda is a large bird that travels continuously – it never stops flying, and never needs to measure its flight or its distance. In mythology the garuda represents the personal principle of not having to restrict how far one can travel or go in life's journey. It symbolizes an absolute freedom, if you will, and its flight is not dependent on conventional limitations.
"In writing the work, I envisioned a huge bird flying over different types of landscapes. The opening of the piece presents a feeling of the bird's appearance and its flight. This introduction is followed by a number of variations. These are based not only on the musical content of the opening, but are also based on different landscapes, with each one characterized by the traditional elements of fire, water, and earth (combined with wind)."
The concerto is 25 minutes long, in four sections, played without pause. The four sections adhere roughly to a slow-fast-slow-fast layout, but there are several shifts of tempo and changes of meter (often from bar to bar) that destabilize this, giving the concerto as a whole a rhapsodic character. Lieberson makes remarkable interpretive demands of both the soloist and the orchestra – his score contains markings such as "bell-like," "fluidly while remaining spacious," "obsessively," "dancing," "fierce," "stamping," and so on.
The concerto opens with a section marked Quietly emerging, whose repeated notes and chords lend it a hypnotic quality. Repetition dominates the texture, like the chiming of some otherworldly clock, as the music seems to come into focus.
Three "variations" based on the four elements – Fire, Water, Wind, and Earth – follow. They are not strictly musical variations, in the sense that Lieberson does not allow the material of the opening to restrict the musical content of the three sections that follow. Rather, the variations are both musical and extra-musical, inspired by the various landscapes over which the garuda flies.
The first, the Fire Variation, begins about three minutes into the concerto. Here, the piano plays a more dominant role in a section that relies more on the alternation between soloist and orchestra traditionally found in concerto form. Lieberson gives the strings much of the richest writing for the orchestra in this section, with illustrative 16th and 32nd notes flickering like flames.
Nine minutes into the concerto, the Water Variation begins with sustained tones in the strings and winds supporting flourishes from other instruments. The section is serene and slow, with a recurring three-note motif figuring prominently in the piano part.
The concerto's final section, the Earth/Wind Variation, begins 16 minutes into the work. The variation emerges from almost complete silence, with the wind machine playing over pizzicato cellos and basses. Brass figures prominently in this movement, giving it its earthy character with motifs marked "heavily" and "stamping." At the height of the section, the piano has a cadenza-like passage, followed by a crescendo for the full orchestra. They build to fortissimo, and then the piano closes the work, fading away into the haze from which the music first emerged.
John Mangum is a Ph.D. candidate in history at UCLA. He has also annotated programs for the Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles Opera, and Hong Kong Arts Festival.
These are the first Los Angeles Philharmonic performances (West Coast premiere).
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, E-flat clarinet, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet (= contrabass clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, Chinese cymbals, crotales, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, tubular bells, vibraphone, whip, wind machine), celesta, harp, strings, and solo piano.