Lowell Liebermann’s opera “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” which had its Colorado premiere last night at the Aspen Music Festival, is based on the dramatic, irresistible Oscar Wilde novel about a young man who sells his soul for ever-youthful good looks. A second performance takes place tomorrow night at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House.
Liebermann himself is a tall, articulate man who is now 53 years old. He is among the most performed living American composers. His fifth string quartet, commissioned for the Emerson String Quartet, will have its New York premiere next year at Lincoln Center.
However, Liebermann says he has never gone out of his way to “sell” his music. “I don’t write what I think people want to hear and I don’t write what i think people expect me to write. I don’t write what’s trendy,” he told me in an interview at an Aspen espresso cafe. “i write the music i would want to hear if I were sitting in the audience.
“I’m very concerned about artistic integrity,” said the New York native, a Juilliard graduate who now lives with his partner William Hobbs and their dogs in Weehawken, N.J. just across the river friom Times Square. “I think it’s very important to balance an appealing surface with intellectual content.”
Thus, while listeners can enjoy “Dorian Gray” for its accessible, tuneful singing and orchestration, it has a formal structure based on a “12-note row which is used not serially but tonally,” according to his program notes. Its “12 consecutive scenes occur in the key of the consecutive pitches of the note-row.”
At the start of the opera, the young Dorian Gray’s theme music is harmonically pleasant. But as the character becomes morally corrupt and his portrait degenerates, the music grows agitated “until the end, when we see the portrait in its final grotesque form, there’s chaos in the orchestra,” Liebermann said.
Does it matter whether the audience grasps the rigorous structure? “For some people it matters, for some it doesn’t,” he said. It’s tricky not to dumb down the music while keeping an audience engaged. At the same time,”you don’t want to alienate a more musically educated audience. To me it’s important to know what the composer was thinking because it does enhance the appreciation of the work.” Moreover, the formal structure of the music “directly relates to the themes of the novel,” said Liebermann.
Whatever kind of listener one is, Liebermann’s music is appealing. He has been told his piano piece “Gargoyles” and his flute sonata are often chosen by students when they audition for the Aspen Music Festival’s celebrated school.
And what does the composer himself listen to when he’s not composing, playing the piano or teaching at Mannes College of Music? He smiled and replied: “Silence.”