APRIL 4 An Evening with Ottmar Liebert New Mexico Philharmonic; David Felberg, conductor. 6 p.m., Popejoy Hall on the UNM campus, Albuquerque. (505) 323-4343; nmphil.org, unmtickets.com
Shortly after moving to Santa Fe in 1986, Ottmar Liebert played a sleeper of a first gig at a restaurant on the lane behind the San Miguel Church. “They were looking for a guitar player,” he recalls, “so I borrowed a friend’s acoustic—I didn’t even have one at the time—and went down and just made some stuff up.”
That made-up stuff—bossa novas and other Latin-flavored numbers—would soon become a familiar sound. By the early nineties you couldn’t walk into a Santa Fe gallery or bookstore—or similar venues around the country, for that matter—without hearing “Barcelona Nights,” the rhythmically layered breakout song on Liebert’s double-platinum 1989 album Nouveau Flamenco. Along with his band, Luna Negra, Liebert had conjured a new musical sub-genre, fusing flamenco with congenial harmonies, New Age world-beat sensibility, and catchy pop melodies, all driven by a rolling groove. Flamenco-inspired pop was all over the place, thanks in large part the breakout success of the Gipsy Kings. Liebert’s impact in this soundscape has been significant and sustained.
Lately Liebert has taken his brand of flamenco fusion into the symphonic realm, with orchestral scores arranged by collaborator and Luna Negra bass player Jon Gagan, another Santa Fean. In 2013, Liebert drew 2,600 people onto the lawns under the cottonwoods for a Zoo Music concert in Albuquerque with the New Mexico Philharmonic. This month, Liebert, Luna Negra, and the Philharmonic will bring their show inside to the more refined and sonically pristine Popejoy Hall at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
“Ottmar’s a huge favorite,” says Christine Rancier, a violinist and the orchestra’s spokeswoman. “He’s very well known here, though he’s toured worldwide. The audience loves him.”
Liebert and Luna Negra have kept those fans happy by releasing roughly an album a year since 1989’s Nouveau Flamenco. And the fans have paid them back: Many of those recordings have reached gold or platinum success.
That success makes Liebert and Luna Negra naturals to collaborate with the New Mexico Philharmonic on a pops concert. Perhaps thanks to Arthur Fiedler, Boston Pops, and PBS, regional orchestras routinely feature performers from more popular musical neighbor- hoods as a way not just to boost one-time concert ticket sales, but also to introduce new listeners to the complex pleasures of classical music.
The New Mexico Philharmonic considers its pops concerts a key part of being a contemporary full-service orchestra. “Some people want a lighter style of music,” Rancier says, adding that it also provides more regular work for the musicians. That’s welcome employment in the wake of the 2011 bankruptcy and demise of the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, where most of the New Mexico Philharmonic musicians previously performed. The new orchestra launched its inaugural season in December 2011, a mere eight months after NMSO folded. In addition to its regular shows, the Philharmonic now offers matinee concerts and a neighborhood series in local churches, all part of the effort to bring new listeners into the classical fold and to better serve longtime supporters.
The regrettably mossy term “eclectic” nails Liebert’s sound, which probably accounts for his popularity. He’s also been called sensual and melodic. Hypnotic and addictive would be fair terms, too. Whether playing with Luna Negra or performing solo, Liebert’s impeccable technique elevates him above lesser performers: He unspools long, fluid, flamenco-style runs without shattering the amiable mood. Liebert typically plays a nylon-string flamenco guitar, but as a true child of the sixties, he can also rock an electric. The ultimate compliment? All the emulators crowding in his tracks: Pandora streaming radio offers a couple dozen nouveau flamenco stations.
A native of Germany, Liebert started playing guitar as a child, discovered flamenco in his teens, and then moved to Boston as a young man. He worked in a bank but always considered himself “a musician with a day job, not a banker with a hobby.” Refusing a promotion, he demoted himself to bike messenger, a job that pretty much wore him out after a couple of years. When a friend invited him along on a drive to Santa Fe in the spring of 1986, Liebert was curious to check out the Wild West, so he tagged along. “I never really left,” he says.
Jon Gagan was playing upright bass in jazz bands in Santa Fe in the late eighties when Ottmar drafted him to play on Nouveau Flamenco. Meeting Gagan was a “pivotal moment,” says Liebert. The bassist’s deep notes anchor all of Liebert’s work with Luna Negra—some 36 albums.
Gagan enjoyed adapting Luna Negra’s music for a full orchestra. “I wanted to really integrate the orchestra into the music, rather than just putting a layer of strings on top,” he says. “The orchestra is a great, powerful flavor to add. Ottmar’s pretty, romantic music is well suited to it.”
“I am a sucker for a clear and simple melody,” says Liebert, “something a person can sing—and not a 30-note melody that can only be recalled with great effort.”
Liebert is currently at work on a new Luna Negra album, experimenting with some seventies sounds that might propel the next wave of new flamenco.
“I’ve been doing this for 25 years, but it doesn’t feel it’s getting old at all,” Liebert says. “There’s always something you can reach for and improve or develop and hear. If things work out for the next couple of albums, it’s going to be amazing.”