There isn't an original idea in Lowell Liebermann's Flute Concerto.
This piece -- which was commissioned a few years ago by the flutist James Galway and was performed by him last night in Meyerhoff Hall with David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony -- begins as if it was Prokofiev's First Violin Concerto. That dreamy, lyrical opening is followed by a section reminiscent of Rachmaninov's "Symphonic Dances" that in turn is followed by something that sounds like the music John Williams wrote for "Star Wars," which leads into a motorythmic Shostakovich-like passage that drops the listener into another dreamy section reminiscent of Williams' film score for "E.T." And this was only the first few minutes of the concerto.
Leibermann is an enormously skillful composer -- the writing for the solo instrument is terrific and so is the orchestration, which uses all of the orchestra's instruments, including those of the percussion section, in an imaginative way. Like many of our so-called "New Romantics," Liebermann's music tends to sound like music we have heard before. But his Piano Concerto No. 2 -- which received its premiere in Washington two years ago and which is a piece I like -- uses its borrowings and its allusions with more wit and originality. If the flute concerto made less of an impression, that may be because it was written to certain demands -- namely those of making a virtuoso like Galway look spectacular. If such were its purposes, it succeeded admirably: The Belfast-born flutist sounded comfortably at home in the both the concerto's lyrical episodes and in its pyrotechnical displays -- something he did not seem in the Jacques Ibert concerto on the first half of the program. (The flutist seemed to be having an off-night.)
Still, one wants a young composer as obviously gifted as the 32-year-old Liebermann to sound more like himself -- whatever that may be -- and not to sound like the musical equivalent of a master quiltmaker.
What a great composer can do with allusions was amply demonstrated by the evening's concluding performance of Ravel's "La Valse." This 1920 composition is a musical analogue to another of modernism's high-water marks, T. S. Eliot's "The Wasteland." It stitches together pieces of fabric from the waltzes of 19th-century Vienna in a beguiling pattern, only to begin to unravel them and, finally, to shred them in one of music's great cataclysms. Zinman's fine reading was beautifully put together -- as was a concert-opening performance of the same composer's "Mother Goose" Suite -- and powerfully affecting in its intensity and conviction.