Columbus Symphony: Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Peter Lieberson(Photo: npr)
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Peter Lieberson(Photo: npr)

Composer Peter Lieberson (1946-2011) was musical royalty. His father was Godard Lieberson, long time CEO behind Columbus Records. Papa Lieberson made possible the early recordings of Igor Stravinsky and Leonard  Bernstein. He invented the original cast Broadway album going back to Oklahoma! (the show not the state)

Peter Lieberson studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger and later in New York with Charles Wourinen. This pedigree helped give him the reputation of an atonal, academic composer. Studied, not loved. I don’t know much about Peter Lieberson’s music. I do know that this coming weekend the Columbus Symphony presents the local premiere of Neruda Songs.  Jean-Marie Zeitouni conducts, with Abigail Fischer, mezzo-soprano. The sonnets are narrated for us in English by Kim Garrison Hopcraft. Friday, Saturday and Sunday October 18, 19 and 20 in the Southern Theater.

Peter Lieberson met mezzo soprano Lorraine Hunt in 1997. She was in Santa Fe to sing the premiere of Lieberson’s opera Ashoka’s Dream Dream. In 1997 the world was beginning to agree that Lorraine Hunt had a gorgeous voice and was one of the most intense musicians since Callas retired.  She had begun her career as a violist, and this writer heard her often as a string player and some time singer at Boston’s Emmanuel Church.

The two fell in love in Santa Fe. Peter Lieberson was the married father of three daughters. Lots of complications ensued. Lorraine eventually became Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. James Levine gave her a blank contract at the Met. She was very choosy about her engagements, but wracked up a major international career.

A breast cancer diagnosis was kept quiet until a string of cancelled performances made it a secret no longer. She never discussed her illness. She sang when she wanted to and when she could. Lieberson’s Rilke Songs songs and Piano Concerto were premiered, both with great success. Ashoka’s Dream had been a hit. The composer had turned to the love sonnets of Pablo Neruda-and from over 100 he chose five. He made this choice knowing full well that Lorraine had little time left. Thus the choice of sonnets is all the more heart-rending. The choice was made together. Neruda cried out, my love if you die and I don’t, Or I I die and you don’t/let’s not give grief an even greater field/No expanse is greater than where we live.

Peter gave his wife a strong orchestration, with washes of great beauty. There’s a lot of sound here, but the writing always supports the voice. For composer and singer, Neruda’s words were paramount.

Lorraine performed these songs with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and The Cleveland Orchestra. Finally with the Boston Symphony and James Levine  in November 2005.

She died on July 3, 2006. Peter Lieberson died five years later.

With the sad back story, reflect as well on the beauty of a profound love wonderfully depicted. There’s nothing sentimental here, no phony sloppiness. The Neruda songs are serious, yes but with often startling beauty. Do not miss these concerts.

Comments