Bradford is only a three-hour drive from Liberatore’s hometown of Auburn, N.Y., but it is light years from where he got his start as a musician. At Syracuse University, Liberatore majored in composition in the acclaimed Setnor School of Music, where he also excelled at theory and piano. Working with such blue-chip professors as Daniel Godfrey, Nicolas Scherzinger, and Andrew Waggoner enabled Liberatore to not only find his voice, but also garner some of the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA)’s highest honors, including being named a VPA Scholar.
Waggoner recalls Liberatore as having a strong personal sense of mission. “John was unique the moment he stepped onto campus,” says Waggoner, professor of music composition, theory, and history. “The first pieces he wrote for me were outsized, anachronistic, wildly romantic, and full of mordant, post-adolescent humor. They were also clearly intentioned, deeply musical, and hugely personal. They revealed a voice, one that has only deepened and become more authentic with time. He’s the real thing.”
In those days, no one figured more prominently in Liberatore’s off-campus development than SNM co-founder Neva Pilgrim. She immediately recognized his gifts as a keyboardist and composer, and set about featuring him at some of SNM’s marquee events, including the Cazenovia Counterpoint festival and Rising Stars concert series.
The combination of world-class instruction at the University and on-the-job training with SNM proved ideal. By the time Liberatore graduated summa cum laude, he had several commissions under his belt and a summer residency at the Bowdoin International Music Festival in Brunswick, Maine.
“Anybody who lives in Syracuse and is interested in new music knows Neva,” says Liberatore, who begins work this fall as an assistant professor of music theory and composition at the University of Notre Dame. “She remains a huge support to me, and has been central to my career.”
Pilgrim returns the compliment, pointing out that Liberatore epitomizes the kind of composers and performers SNM seeks to support. “Some people think great artists step from their practice room right onto the stage of Carnegie Hall, but, in reality, there’s a lot of nurturing that goes on behind the scenes,” she says. “The Israel Prize, which comes with prize money [$750] and multiple performances over a couple of years, is designed to support emerging composers in the region, such as John, who are under the age of 30 and show real promise.”
Liberatore is not lost on the significance of the Israel Prize, which is named for the gifted University composer who died from leukemia in 1986 at age 35. Like Israel, Liberatore explores shifts in mood and emotion, often following a witty movement by a serious one.
That the Israel competition accepts submissions from all over New York State and is judged anonymously makes Liberatore’s achievement even more remarkable. “Brian Israel was an extremely gifted composer, so it seemed appropriate to name a prize after him, following his untimely death,” Pilgrim says. “John is a ‘wunderkind’ in the way Brian was, and his receipt of the Israel Prize is a wonderful way to honor Brian’s memory.”
Already, “She rose” has been performed by several pianists, including Eunmi Ko, who gave the piece its New York premiere last summer at Carnegie Hall. Plans are underway for her to commercially record it this fall.
Ko, who has worked with Liberatore for several years, marvels at how he masterfully weaves together ideas, while playing to the strengths of each instrument. “‘She rose’ plays beautifully on the piano,” says Ko, whose new music ensemble, Strings & Hammers, has championed other pieces of his. “Then again, it doesn’t compromise its musical quality for the sake of the instrument. As a pianist, I feel lucky to have a piece like this [in my repertoire].”
No doubt that Ko is echoing the sentiments of other industry tastemakers. In addition to the Israel Prize, “She rose” won the prestigious ASCAP Foundation Morton Gould Young Composer Award—Liberatore’s second such award from that organization—and made him a finalist for the Julius F. Ježek Prize, sponsored by The Harry and Alice Eiler Foundation.
Adds soprano Jamie Jordan, who has performed Liberatore’s music in New York and Philadelphia: “John is thoughtful and clever in choosing and setting text. A respectful collaborator, he has tremendous creative vision … and a keen sense of orchestration.”