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R.I.P. Peter Lieberson: The composer in conversation before the ASO performed “Neruda Songs”

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Update 4/24/2011: The New York Times has this obituary of composer Peter Lieberson. The following conversation with Lieberson was originally published June 10, 2010, by ArtsCriticATL.com.

This week, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra ends its 2009-2010 season with Mozart’s last two symphonies and Peter Lieberson’s “Neruda Songs,” with smoky-voiced mezzo Kelley O’Connor and conducted by Robert Spano.

Great art is supposed to speak for itself, but sometimes the life stories and biographical details are impossible to separate from the art. Mozart’s incomplete Requiem, completed on his deathbed. Van Gogh’s inflamed madness in the Provençal sun as he painted his final canvases. The vivid novels of Irène Némirovsky, penned while in hiding in the months before she was deported to Auschwitz. Sometimes art becomes embedded in legend, which forever shapes our impressions.

The most poignant legend now going in classical music involves composer Lieberson and his wife, the devastatingly gifted singer Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who died of breast cancer just 14 months after she sang “Neruda Songs” at its premiere in May 2005. The five songs are drawn from Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s “100 Love Sonnets” and, musically, they’re ravishingly lyrical and tranquil and exquisitely tuned to Neruda’s poetry. And a song like “My Love, if I die and you don’t” amplifies an already engrossing compositional narrative.

I spoke with Lieberson on the phone from Houston, where he’s undergoing chemotherapy and starting a new life. We began with composing and “Neruda Songs,” but the conversation quickly turned to Lorraine, and to the unexpected twists in his life, then circled back to Lorraine.

Pierre Ruhe: Tell me about how you set Neruda’s Spanish. You speak Spanish?

Peter Lieberson: No, I do not. In a way, when you set a poem to music you’re creating a new poem. Spanish isn’t that difficult a language to comprehend; it’s not like setting German, which I find a little more difficult, although I set [German-language] songs for Lorraine [“Rilke Songs”]. Perhaps I have some feeling for language; I don’t know. But Neruda’s Spanish is very beautiful and so evocative and so melodic in its own way, so musical. I actually find English the most difficult language to set.

Ruhe: Ah, I think of your “King Gesar,” in English, which is mostly declaimed song-speech, and only when the narrator assumes the persona of Gesar is it sung.

Lieberson: Well, that’s right. But in the “Neruda Songs,” the most labor-intensive aspect of composing was choosing the poetry. That’s very important to me. With the “Neruda Songs,” I was looking for a series of poems that would connect and make a narrative arc. That was my primary intent in my choices. I’ve written several song cycles, with five poems each, and that seems to make a natural, a balanced, narrative. “Responsiveness” is the word I would use with Neruda’s poems, the imagery, the emotional tone, the domain of sorrow, or love, that he evokes — that’s what I respond to. And once that happens, I don’t think very much about constructing a piece. It becomes intuitive; I just let go. Neruda is a very sensual poet, very ripe, and I found melodies to come quite naturally.

Ruhe: You take the poems almost literally: In the first song, for the line “when autumn climbs up through the vines,” we hear it in the music, the autumn air and the climbing vine….

Lieberson: I deliberately avoided poems that had undertones or were in any way political, which is in a lot of what Neruda wrote. What I was looking for was something pointed and poignant and very human, because it could expand out, so that it becomes everyone’s experience.

Ruhe: I read that Lorraine first read these to you in Spanish. Is that how they entered your ear, in terms of how you set them?

Lieberson: To some extent, yes. She and I read through all one hundred, and she’d mark which ones she liked, although I don’t think we came to an agreement about which ones should be set. [laughter] But surprisingly, I would work on my own, and finish one, and she’d look at it and we’d play through it. Then she’d make suggestions. She had to cancel many engagements in that time, but she sang the “Neruda Songs.” She sang them with several orchestras. You know, Bob Spano conducted Lorraine [in “Neruda Songs”] with the Cleveland Orchestra.

Ruhe: Now he’s proving they’re repertory pieces, beyond the original inspiration.

Lieberson: Kelley now has sung them with many orchestras. I’ve had a request to have a male voice sing them too, a baritone. They’re being taken up by other singers. And I remember standing backstage with Jimmy Levine at Carnegie Hall, and Jimmy asked me for another set of songs, as a sort of follow-up. Lorraine was still alive then, but I told him no, I don’t think a sequel would work well. I didn’t feel like it, frankly. So later I thought I’d write a sort of scena for Lorraine, but that didn’t happen. Then I thought about a set of “Farewell Songs,” I was going to call it, also drawn from the same collection of Neruda’s sonnets. Then I got really sick; I’d been sick taking care of Lorraine but didn’t get myself checked out. My wife and I have moved to Houston for the treatments. I have to be monitored.

Ruhe: Congratulations on getting recently remarried.

Lieberson: Thanks, thanks. The best way I explain falling in love again comes from the last line, Neruda’s last line that closes the last song: “Love, this love has not ended, just as it never had a birth, it has no death, it is like a long river, only changing lands, and changing lips.” That’s how I explain the unexpectedness of falling in love again. And getting married and a whole new life starting and dealing with my illness and composing new works…. George Steel, who runs New York City Opera, asked for an opera and I’m seriously thinking about a one-act comedy, to pair with Stravinsky’s “The Flood”….

Ruhe: Is your latest song cycle, “Songs of Love and Sorrow” [premiered in March in Boston with baritone Gerald Finley], the “Farewell Songs” you’d planned to write after Lorraine’s death?

Lieberson: Not exactly, but there are a lot of references to Lorraine, to personal references, to my wife Rinchen, to the pain and impermanence of life.

Ruhe: It’s a Nerudan concept, perhaps, what’s so monumental can also be so ephemeral.

Lieberson: Yes, that’s what life is. The more you appreciate the impermanence, the more you appreciate all the little moments that take place.

Ruhe: Your faith — your Tibetan Buddhist teachings — must also be informing this.

Peter Lieberson (photo by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson)

Lieberson: I have faith in the truth, and that has come from what the Buddha said and what my teachers have taught me and from personal experience. So I don’t have blind faith that things will be OK. And the first truth that the Buddha taught was the truth of suffering. This isn’t a depressing truth, it’s simply a fact. There’s nothing one can hold on to; at the same time, a tremendous love and poignancy dawns when one realizes that. A love for others, a love for life, a love for experience of life itself.

Ruhe: [long pause] Anything I say after that will sound glib. How is your health now, if I might ask?

Lieberson: You can. It’s … it’s … ephemeral! I’m now being treated for leukemia, such an odd disease, because it’s a secondary condition caused by what I’d call a successful treatment of lymphoma. So the leukemia requires transfusion and chemotherapies, which is why we live in Houston. Houston and Santa Fe.

Ruhe: You’d mentioned you’ve been to Atlanta a lot.

Lieberson: I’ve taught in Atlanta many times, in my earlier days. Teaching Shambhala and Buddhism in Atlanta. Never music. This is the first time I’m being performed in Atlanta. [Editor’s note: Actually, LHL performed the “Rilke Songs” at Spivey Hall, with Lieberson in the box seats, house left.]

Ruhe: You’ll not be here for the Atlanta Symphony performances, of course…

Lieberson: It’s right at a time I have new treatments, and I have no idea how I’ll be feeling afterwards, so travel is very unlikely. It’s funny, because I don’t regard myself as an ill person. I have an illness, but I don’t think of myself as an ill person. That’s helped a lot, actually. It’s not something I’ve had to work at, it’s just the way it is.

Ruhe: An optimism about life?

Lieberson: Not really, I just feel a very basic life force. As long as that lasts, that’s my signal. I can feel the life force. That’s my marker. I also have a lot to live for, my wife, my three children [from his first marriage] who are young women now, and pieces I want to write. (Lower photo by Rinchen Lhamo)

Ruhe: As a composer, you seem to have found your mature voice relatively late, in your mid-50s. You went from a sort of post-serial guy who was all about muscle and structure and a little forbidding … to a sensualist who seemed to emerge from Mahler and Berg and lyricism, but entirely in your own voice. I know how to respond to it, but I don’t know how to put it into words.

Lieberson: That’s my feeling too. It’s something that just appeared and I’m very happy I paid attention to. A lot of it came when I started writing for Lorraine and recognized the power of what she did. I became interested in vocal music after I met her [for his 1997 opera “Ashoka’s Dream” at the Santa Fe Opera]. But honestly, I think it’s something else, and I don’t know how to put my finger on it either. Some people say, “Peter, now your music sounds tonal,” but it doesn’t make sense purely from that point of view. And it doesn’t make sense from my use of 12-tone music, which I’d absorbed and really threw myself into in my younger days. It’s something else. I don’t worry about it, but I’ve allowed whatever it is to come through. I sometimes describe it as a sort of nakedness rather than trying to be “accessible” or “complex.” The essence of how I compose is the same, my ears are the same, but it comes out different, and I can’t explain it.

Ruhe: When you composed “Neruda Songs,” for example, did you start with a melody off the lyrics? What was your process?

Lieberson: Yes, I responded to the words and to the emotional tone of the poem. I heard notes when I read the words. Generally I like the tactile feeling, the sensual feeling of being at the piano, so I compose there. I listen very, very carefully to the words, and the harmony is very intuitive. The great period of jazz, that’s how I learned harmony, Bill Evans and Miles Davis. That was my ear training. Orchestrations come easily to me, and I often hear which instrument should be playing. It’s constant responsiveness; it’s somewhere between improvising and strategizing.

Ruhe: That’s hilarious: “somewhere between improvising and strategizing.” That sums up so much of music history. It’s finding that balance.

Lieberson: You mentioned finding my mature voice. Some people are blessed seeing it right away; for me it took a long time. I think a piece like “Red Garuda,” [premiered by the Boston Symphony in 1999, conducted by Spano], is one of my better pieces, but apparently quite different from the lyricism of “Neruda Songs.” I can assure you that equal attentiveness went into both those works. Probably my earlier pieces were more about testosterone, then I found love, and that’s what you’re hearing now in my music.

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