In the Music World, Success is Measured by the Quality of Collaboration
William Liberatore, 57, is a rare witness to the growth and dynamics of the San Francisco Bay Area musical theater space. “I grew up here,” he says about Palo Alto, “I started playing gigs when I was 14. I’ve been involved in the production scene here for the better half of three decades. This place is a part of who I am.”
Liberatore, who is the choir director at Henry M. Gunn High School and the musical director at Silicon Valley’s Theatreworks, has been in the Bay Area musical circuit for the last thirty years. “At one point when I was a freshman in high school, I was playing for the local community theater. During shows, the much older musicians in the pit would pass a flask around, and gradually they would drop out of the music one by one,” Liberatore recalls, chuckling. “Finally, it was just me left at the end, playing–” he stomps out two sharp, dramatic chords on the grand piano in front of him– “A million times over, trying to keep the sound of music going for, well, The Sound of Music.” He refers to the Rodgers and Hammerstein play that premiered in the early mid 20th century.
Liberatore notes that around 6th grade, he was able to play as well as he is now, so he was in demand as the local pianist, with a catch: he was too young to drive. According to Liberatore, his employers would find ways to get him to gigs, sending various envoys who would pick him up, but who wouldn’t necessarily take him home. He laughs, “My mother would wait up late for me to come back after rehearsals and performances, and pace in front of the house in her nightgown so she could yell at whoever was brave enough to be dropping me off at two in the morning, on a Tuesday.” He pauses, and adds thoughtfully, “And then, I just never stopped doing that.”
Gig work naturally prompted him to study performance. “At first I moved to LA, and I was planning on being a stage pianist. But it really wasn’t my thing - so I came back to Palo Alto and transferred to San Jose State. And that’s where I figured out that I wanted to teach.”
Liberatore recalls that the person who truly inspired him to teach was Dr. Charlene Archibeque, who was Director of Choral Activities for 35 years at San Jose State University. “You know when you see someone who really makes you think, ‘I want to do that?’ Charlene Archibeque was that person for me. I saw her teach, and I wanted to teach.” Teaching wasn’t necessarily new to Liberatore – as a high schooler, he had acted as musical director for elementary schools in the Palo Alto area, going to rehearsals after class to teach young children their music. “It’s basically what I do now, except I call it a job.” On directing the locally renowned Gunn High School Choir, he says, “No one in this group is a typical ‘choir kid.’ You have children coming in from all grade levels and all walks of life and all social circles, and they come together. Whether we’re singing in Rome or the school theater, we’re making something as a team.” The choir has just returned from a tour of Italy, where, not for the first time, they performed at the Vatican.
His time studying teaching in college lent itself to further gigwork, and ultimately a growing career with Silicon Valley’s Theatreworks. “Well, college doesn’t exactly make you money,” he notes, “So I’d go to class to learn how to teach, and then I’d go to the gigs in the evening. And that extended into adulthood–by the time I started making money teaching, I had a mortgage and kids, and I still needed the gig work. So it just kind of kept going.” His relationship with the notable Bay Area theater company was long in the running. “I’d known Kelley for a while,” he says, referring to Theatreworks Artistic Director Robert Kelley. “I’d been in their circle of pianists for most of my life, and I kept it up in college. I became their official Musical Director almost twenty years ago.”
He adds that pretty much everyone who gigs has a multi-layered career. “You’re a performer, but you’re also a teacher. People like me conduct, orchestrate, direct–a musician who thrives has to do a little bit of everything. The nature of the field is that you have to have a multi-layered career.” When asked what he considers a successful gig, he says, “At my age, success is defined by collaboration. I love working with people who understand the value of teamwork. I’ve done shows with top of the line musicians as well as juniors, and oftentimes I’ve found that collaborating with less experienced artists is more satisfying because they have such a joyful and respectful attitude.” a
Gig work, according Liberatore, is a never-ending learning experience, and for aspiring musicians, no gig is too small. “Nothing should be beneath you,” he says. “Nothing should be too small. And you have to be in it for the lifelong learning of the artform, or else you’ll hate it.” He muses, “That’s how it never gets old. And then, by the time you’re my age, you realize you don’t really know anything about this, and you have to keep learning.”