WASHINGTON -- If the American Symphony Orchestra League convention delivered the news earlier this week that the American orchestra is in a parlous state, then the Steinway Foundation posted notice that the health of the modern piano concerto may be better than anyone may have imagined.
The occasion for this news was Thursday evening's concert at the Kennedy Center of three world premiere performances of piano concertos commissioned by Steinway. Two of the pieces were negligible, but one of them struck this listener as perhaps the best piece in the genre since Samuel Barber's concerto 30 years ago.
The composer was Lowell Liebermann, and his Piano Concerto No. 2 -- in a brilliant performance by Stephen Hough accompanied by the National Symphony and retiring conductor Mstislav Rostropovich -- brought a knowledgeable audience of 2,000 music professionals from the league convention to its feet in cheers. Liebermann, a 31-year-old Juilliard-trained composer, knows how to write lyrically without sounding as if he is condescending -- no small trick nowadays.
The whole piece struck with the force of a superbly constructed narrative. The slow movement, the powerful emotional core of the piece, is imaginatively orchestrated, with the brasses and bassoons announcing the beginning of an epic passacaglia. While it did not seem derivative of the earlier composer, it struck simultaneous sparks in the directions of the grotesque and heroic much as Prokofiev's best concertos do. The writing for the piano is terrific throughout, much of it -- like the prestissimo duet between the soloist and contrabassoonist that brings the second movement to an end or the magnificent peroration of the concerto's conclusion -- is breathtaking.
Of the other two concertos, little need be said. Lalo Schifrin's Piano Concerto No. 2 is subtitled "Concerto of the Americas" but could have been called the "Thumpa-bumpa, Bangs- a-lot Concerto." This piece of garbage by an estimable TV and movie composer ("Mission: Impossible," "Cool Hand Luke") is filled with every imaginable cliche. It's like bad cocktail music, the sort of music that still sounds awful when too many hours and too many beers in a bar have made even the overly made-up blond across the room look good. The capable but unfortunate pianist was Christina Ortiz.
Rodion Schedrin's Piano Concerto No. 4 was well written for the instrument, but consisted of little but sound effects. The opening was dreamy and meditative and some of the writing for the solo instrument and orchestra had the hypnotic effect of John Adams' latter-day minimalism. But the piece was much too long and was remarkable chiefly for what it allowed its wonderful soloist, Nikolai Petrov, to do. Petrov, a Russian in his late 40s, is a behemoth of a man and a pianist who knows how to make a piano whisper and roar and do everything in between.