You’ve heard the expression, the gift that keeps on giving. Two years ago friends of Santa Clara resident Jan Lieberman gave her a gift for her 85th birthday that does exactly that. They created a classical music concert series for Lieberman at the Santa Clara City Library that is free to the community.
“It was an incredible surprise,” says Lieberman, who personally chooses the performers. “They gave me a huge party at the Mission Branch Library with 65 of my ‘closest friends.’ They raised over $8,000. I’d never ever thought of having anything in my name.”
Now in its second year, last April the free concert series featured a jazz journey with pianist Andy Lagunoff and his ensemble. The first concert in April 2016 featured pianists Jack and Chris Bradshaw, and in November of that year the Ettinger Family string quartet performed.
A native of Chicago, Lieberman is both a life-long musician and an activist. She was elected as Mayor of her school’s model government when she was in the eighth grade. She sang in the concert choir at Chicago’s Roosevelt High School, where she was also voted most likely to succeed.
Lieberman got an early start at the world of entertainment and performance. Her father worked at a television factory when TV was brand new in the late 1940s, so the family had some of the earliest models. Her mother took her to her first opera, Verdi’s Aida, when she was 10. “It was overwhelming,” she says. “The love of music came naturally to me. I still remember getting a record player. The first record I got was [the operetta] Song of Norway. I listened to it over and over and over.”
After high school, she attended the University of Wisconsin. “The first thing I did was join the music committee.” The committee put on Sunday afternoon sings and Lieberman ran them. She san in the chorus in a school production of Girl Crazy. “That was the second semester of my freshman year,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t know if I ever went to class.”
She went on to become the university’s concert series manager, a role that she cherishes to this day. Artur Rubenstein came to perform, bringing a young, unknown violinist with him—Isaac Stern. “Stern took us out to dinner,” she says. “It was a very special highlight.”
After graduating with degrees in children’s literature and library science, she decided she wanted to be a concert promoter and went to work for the legendary Chicago impresario Harry Zelzer. Lieberman imbibed all the lessons that the “Sol Hurok of the Midwest” would teach her, including the importance of encouraging young artists. One of the young artists that Zelzer helped was the famous tenor Mario Lanza.
Although she was only working for $1 an hour, the job’s other compensations more than made up for the low pay. Zelzer booked almost every visiting ballet company, orchestra, chamber ensemble, instrumentalist, and singer that came to Chicago. “I got to see all of the operas,” she explains. “I got to watch the rehearsals at Orchestra Hall.”
Lieberman’s mother however, didn’t think that her investment in her daughter’s college education was being put to good use. And—whether reflecting the biases of the time or a sense that the music world was changing and the impresario was giving way to the professional fundraiser— Zelzer told her to “go back and be a teacher.”
After marrying her husband of 60 years in 1952, Don Lieberman—“it was always a love affair” says Jan—she started teaching in Wayne City, Michigan, where Don was doing a medical residency. When he finished, as Jan puts it, “We just got in the car and drove to California.”
Lieberman taught at Scott Lane Elementary School as her husband built a medical practice, and the couple settled in Santa Clara—at that time a town of 10,000 people.
Lieberman started teaching at San José State University, where she made life-long friends. “My friends now were my students then,” she says. One former student was retired City Librarian Julie Passalacqua.
Another was Bob Byrd, currently the Santa Clara Historic Preservation Society President and a former Library Board Member. who dropped in on Lieberman during our interview.
“The first day of school, September 1965,” he remembers, “my brother and I started library school. And there was this energizer bunny. This woman was running everywhere, helping everybody, laughing all the time!”
Lieberman began a newsletter about books for children, TNT—Tips ‘n Titles. When author Jim Trelease published The Read-Aloud Handbook, and mentioned Lieberman’s newsletter, Lieberman found herself with an exploding subscriber list—$1 plus a self-addressed stamped envelope—and in demand, nationally, as a speaker on children’s literature.
“I have always been involved with music,” she says. “I always included music in my story-telling.”
Now the girl who wanted to be an impresario was managing her own show. “I started giving workshops all over the country, from the 1970s into the 1990s. That was basically my life.” Lieberman also worked at the City Library until she retired to join her husband in a very active retirement. “He loved to play,” Lieberman recalls.
Beyond being the inspiration for the concert series, Lieberman was also the catalyst for the Central Library’s new piano. The donation for the instrument was funded by the education society Liebermann has belonged to for many years, Delta Kappa Gamma. The money was donated from a legacy the society received from a deceased member.
The next Jan Lieberman concert will be Nov. 12, 2017 at 2 p.m. in the Central Park Library’s Redwood Room.
“It’s very exciting to be able to give this to the community,” said Tracy Winslow, Executive Director Santa Clara Library Foundation and Friends. “We are proud to honor Jan, who has given so much to our community and the library with her concert series.”