Composer/Pianist Max Lifchitz is Eclectic and Proud
From the beginning, classical music’s past and present, and its "there" and "here," have all come together for Max Lifchitz.
Last September, the new chair of the Department of Music traveled to the Brazilian city of João Pessoa to be a keynote speaker on American music at the eighth annual Conference of the Brazilian Association of Graduate Music Schools. On Friday, Jan. 26, in the campus Recital Hall he joined the Mexico City String Quartet on piano for a program that featured his reworking of an early quintet by Mexican composer Carlos Chavez, and a new impressionistic composition by Lifchitz, "Daydreams," which recalls ancient Mexican folk song and dance.
"Lifchitz has created some extraordinarily evocative music in a very short space of time, contemporary music that uses new language very movingly" wrote a Times Union reviewer. His playing has been equally praised. "A young composer of brilliant imagination and a stunning, ultra-sensitive pianist," the San Francisco Chronicle marveled a few years ago.
"Growing up in Mexico and beginning my music study there, I was very much impressed with the German tradition of the classics, the French tradition and others," said Lifchitz. "But I always knew that just being a musician of the classics was not enough — that I had to both search out and create something new.
"Growing up in Mexico I was very aware that artists were categorized as being ‘nationalistic’ composers and ‘internationalistic’ composers. And there is a great emphasis on being considered a ‘Mexican composer’ or ‘Mexican writer’ there — much more than you would ever consider in America calling someone an ‘American’ composer or writer.
"So it was never difficult for me to give to my work a nationalistic outlook, to incorporate the sound of Mexico with the sound of the classics. And for that matter it was natural for me to make some of my other work more abstract, often using Mexican motifs — a Mexican waltz, for instance. People will ask me if a musical phrase was an actual quote from a folk song or dance, and I say, ‘No, but it is from very old-fashioned sounds, done with contemporary technique.’
"I am in other words very much an eclectic composer, and I’m not ashamed of that."
The year 1996 marks the third in a series of 10-year anniversaries in Lifchitz’ career. After one year of college study in his native Mexico City, Lifchitz in 1966 earned a scholarship to the Juilliard School in New York City.
There he studied for five years, went to Carnegie Hall and other locales to hear such heroes as Artur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz and Rudolf Serkin, and to watch and meet Leonard Bernstein. "I had marvelous instruction at Juilliard," said Lifchitz, "I always said that at Juilliard I learned as much from the students as I did from the teachers. They were so talented, so innovative."
After a fellowship at Harvard University and a junior fellowship at the University of Michigan, Lifchitz returned to New York in 1976 to begin a 10-year stay on the faculty of Columbia University.
"All this time, however, I was keeping very much in touch with the serious new South American composers. The one thing that bothered me about the New York musical establishment in the ’70s and ’80s was a cultural void. It did not wish to reach out beyond the established repertoire."
For that reason, Lifchitz created North/South Consonance Inc., a non-profit group devoted to the promotion and performance of music by living composers from throughout the world. "My organization created several exchanges between Latin American composers and American institutions. It created a certain bridge that did not exist before. Today I am very happy to see that many organizations in New York and elsewhere are now looking out to modern composers from nations that they would not have looked to before."
Despite acclaimed contemporary concerts by Lifchitz and other talented North/South Consonance performers at Christ & St. Stephen’s Church on Manhattan’s West Side (which continue today), that broad-mindedness had still not come to in New York in 1986, and so Lifchitz was happy to shift his base to Albany when he joined the University faculty.
In addition to his treks to New York, his frequent concert stops throughout Latin America continued and even increased. Last year he was recruited by the Institute for International Education in New York to visit Mexico and help choose six young musicians to come to the U.S. to study. His Mexico City String Quartet concert on campus was a reprise of one he did early in January in Mexico City. He is now in the process of writing a new piano concerto that he will premiere in El Salvador later this year.
Mexican clasical music legend Carlos Chavez: Lifchitz is musical executor of his estate.
Only his new chairmanship may decrease his frequent flyer miles a bit. "Because of administrative duties, I will not be traveling as much," he admitted. "It’s also more a chore to fly now because there are fewer airlines. But it’s still a joy to travel — to meet colleagues and to keep up with things."
More than that, he tries to keep his University students up with Latin American music. "Every trip I take I am used to bringing an extra suitcase with me," he said.
When he taught for a week last September at the Villa-Lobos Institute in Rio de Janeiro, he spent each morning at the National Library copying music sheets and parts of old books of music folk lore. "It’s very good for my Latin American music class. When I started it, there was a lack of published material and available recordings. The classics were on CD, but the Latin American music I very often had to research and collect myself."
Lifchitz is also enhancing the historical preservation of Mexican music first-hand. Named as the musical executor of the estate of Carlos Chavez (1899-1978), the most important of all Mexican composers, conductors and musical administrators, Lifchitz has been coordinating the centennial celebration of his birth in 1999. Chavez hid many of his early works because of their European influence, and many of later works are so abstract as to not be recognized even in Mexico as belonging to Chavez.
Lifchitz adapted the Chavez quintet for the Mexico City group from a piano sextet played just once in 1921. "The last movement was lost, so I had to find some sketches he had made for it and put it together from that," said Lifchitz. "It is European in many ways, but there is a Mexican personality to it that Chavez probably did not realize." He has also included three early Chavez piano works on his new solo CD, Mexico: 100 Years of Piano Music.
Finally, Lifchitz is undertaking the re-orchestration and completion of Chavez’s one opera, done only once in New York and once in Mexico in the 1950s, and then withdrawn by the composer. "It is a complex and exciting work, and Chavez was revising it when he died" said Lifchitz. "My main work will be on the third act, because all that is left of it is a partial piano/vocal score."
For all such efforts over the years, Lifchitz is grateful to the University. "My position here allows me to be bold in what I do, not be a slave to the marketplace. Many of the works I have done, several of my 10 albums produced for North/South for instance, have been aided by grants from the Research Office and UUP. In addition to that there has been funding from the New York State Council on the Arts. Many of these have been matched by private foundations.
"I’m also proud of the department. We have good faculty both as teachers and as performers and composers. Our greatest need is for computer-based instruction, but we are growing into that area as well."
Such technological lessons not only will provide students with the new advances in musical sound, recording and editing, Lifchitz believes they can help activate a now too-often dormant human appendage — the musical ear.
"People are exposed to music more than ever because of recordings," he said. "It’s on radios, on TV commercials, it’s thrown at them in elevators. But because of that we have developed a certain insensitivity to music. It’s like wallpaper.
"No matter what the music, people should be developing a serious appreciation for it instead of it being basically background or a soundtrack to their lives. I know that if one develops the proper listening technique to one kind of music, you can them love them all — all types, from all cultures. To appreciate music as an art is an art in itself."