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Happy Birthday, Jorge Liderman

November 20, 2007

Who can resist a birthday celebration where everyone receives a musical treat? That's exactly what happened Sunday afternoon in Hertz Hall, when Cal Performances celebrated composer and music professor Jorge Liderman's 50th birthday. Although it didn't include cake, the smile-filled afternoon featured some of Liderman's favorite players in definitive performances of music he wrote for them: Cuarteto Latinoamericano, pianist Sonia Rubinsky, guitarist David Tanenbaum, and, working as a trio, clarinetist Carey Bell, marimbaist Florian Conzetti, and pianist Karen Rosenak.
As Liderman explained in the program notes, these artists "not only served as interpreters of my music, but also as a source of inspiration during the compositional process. Their virtuosity, expressiveness, and tightness were present in my mind while writing these pieces."

Born in Buenos Aires, Liderman joined the UC Berkeley composition faculty in 1989, one year after receiving his doctorate in composition from the University of Chicago. The recipient of awards and commissions from the Guggenheim Foundation, American Academy of Arts and Letters, Fromm Foundation, and University of California President's Fellowship, he has also been granted a fellowship at the Tanglewood Music Center, a Radio France Award, and two Argentine Tribune of Composers Prizes.

Liderman's works have been commissioned by a host of international and local ensembles. The short list includes the London Sinfonietta, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Tanglewood Orchestra, Radio France, Cuarteto Latinoamericano, Arditti String Quartet, Duo 46, New Century Chamber Orchestra, Earplay, and San Francisco Contemporary Music Players.

At its most engaging, Liderman's music possesses tremendous spirit, compelling rhythmic buoyancy, and visceral drive. That is not to say he always seems intent on inviting listeners in. The first and earliest work on the program, Tropes IV (1990), is a case in point. Liderman wrote the work for pianist Sonia Rubinsky, who added some extra sparkle to the music thanks to her shiny, dangling earrings and open-toed silver heels that sported equally sparkling straps.

The composer describes the work as "a series of character pieces." I can't vouch for any character save my own, but I found the music to be far less a welcome statement fit for a birthday celebration than an overly intellectual, "here I am, come along for the ride if you so desire" fait accompli.
Into the Depths
The relatively short String Quartet No. 3 (1994), by contrast, offered a definite way in. Inspired by a dream Liderman had immediately following a trip to Australia, the work skillfully creates an eerie, dreamlike subconscious realm in which a repeated and progressively elaborated refrain eventually reveals itself as a quote from Beethoven's String Quartet in F Major, Op. 59, No. 1. Played by Cuarteto Latinoamericano, who have recorded both it and the Piano Quintet that followed for Albany Records, the quartet's strong rhythmic statements were permeated by an irresistible air of mystery. With catchy, dancelike passages, Liderman evoked a surreal internal landscape that enveloped the listener while defying instant analysis.

Piano Quintet (2002), for which Rubinsky joined Cuarteto Latinoamericano, began as though it were a 21st-century art-music version of a traditional Latin American dance. The three movements — Con brio, Scherzando, and Leggero — blended one into the other, reinforcing a sense of overarching rhythmic momentum. At various points, Rubinsky produced some delightfully delicate, high bright sounds over pizzicato strings.

After intermission, Bell, Conzetti, and Rosenak took the stage for Trio (2006), a composition so new that it has yet to be listed on Liderman's Web site. The third in a series of works written for similar instrumentation, the five-movement piece exploits the bright colors of the clarinet and marimba by variously doubling and contrasting their sounds. After the second movement's humorous, bubbly invention, Liderman inserts a beautiful, prayerlike exposition for clarinet. This special moment soon cedes to bright, pulsating bursts of sound and energy that bring the crowd-pleaser to a spirited end.

Aged Tunes (2007), Liderman's fourth collaboration with David Tanenbaum and Cuarteto Latinoamericano, again showcased Liderman's driving, deliciously pulsating rhythms. Judging from the audience's delayed reaction to the work's conclusion, I must not have been the only one who was having such a good time getting caught up in the music's spicy flow that the ending came as an abrupt surprise. All of a sudden, bows and hands were in the air, the musicians were on their feet, and everyone was smiling. Everyone except the audience, that is, whose smiles and applause came after quickly recovering from being caught off guard. As Liderman walked onstage to accept the audience's appreciation, all nine musicians gathered to perform a droll surprise, a spiky, discordant Happy Birthday à la Jorge Liderman.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.